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Education: Gender Pendulum

At the science fair, girls dominate the class

From Friday's Globe and Mail

To qualify for this week's Canada-Wide Science Fair in Winnipeg, Larissa Christie logged hundreds of hours investigating North America's vanishing bee population.

Why Canada's young male scientists also seem to be disappearing, she says, is easier to explain.

"So many girls are just determined," said Larissa, 15, speaking from the University of Manitoba, where 500 of Canada's best young scientists are competing for almost $1-million in scholarships and grants that will be handed out today.

As female students increasingly dominate in science competitions across the country, educators are facing a conundrum that requires more social analysis than hard science: Boys are not just getting beaten by girls — they're not even showing up.

Five years ago, boys made up 55 per cent of the competitors at the annual Canada-Wide Science Fair, a national competition where youth in grades 7 to 12 compete against other regional representatives. After a steady decline, this year boys are in the minority at 44 per cent.

Girls are also claiming the lion's share of prize money available each year: Eight of the last nine overall winners have been female.

"We're beginning to have concerns," said Reni Barlow, executive director of Youth Science Canada, a national organization that oversees the national and regional science fairs in its mandate to foster Canada's future generation of scientists.

Educators are searching for new tools to lure more boys back into the fold. In Quebec, where girls made up 68 per cent of students at this year's provincial science fair, regional organizers recently created a program focused on technology and robotics — deliberately promoting fields where boys have traditionally shown the most interest. Youth Science Canada recently launched a mentorship program that it hopes will inspire more boys to continue in the footsteps of Canada's top male researchers.

Ironically, many of the programs mirror those that have been used in the last 15 years to draw more young girls into the fold, when the alarm was raised about the lack of women in science university programs across the country.

Carole Charlebois, executive director of Quebec's provincial branch of YSC, says she suspects the pendulum has swung too far in the girls' direction and boys are being left out and left behind. "We're seeing a real decrease in interest and good marks from the boys."

Others say some boys simply lack motivation.

"If I were to say [why] — I know this might sound a bit sexist — but most of the time, the girls are more persistent in the work," said Ronan Lefol, a Grade 12 student from Saskatoon, who started competing in science fairs in Grade 1 and has gone on to win thousands of dollars in scholarship money.

Megan Hawse, 13, said many of her male peers in Mount Pearl, Nfld., would rather play sports than spend the hours she logged on evenings and weekends for her experiment on whether algae could be a sufficient source of Omega 3 for humans.

She has noticed some other factors. When she reaches Grade 11, she plans to apply for a provincial internship program that promotes women in science and engineering — but there isn't a similar program for her male classmates. And one reason no boys competed in a biotechnology fair in her area, she added, may be that girls tend to be more interested in subjects like biology, health and environmental sciences, whereas boys tend to be drawn more to physical sciences and engineering.

Ms. Christie, part of an all-female, six member team of representatives from Bluewater County in Ontario, thinks the trend may also reflect how she's been educated. "I don't know if it's just my generation, or maybe we've just been raised with the idea that we can do whatever we put our minds to."

The trend in science fairs seems to reflect what's already being seen throughout the education system. While women continue to be underrepresented at the graduate level in physical sciences and engineering, they are in the majority of at most university undergraduate programs and medical schools. Many high school teachers report that girls are running circles around the boys in class in most subjects.

Gino Ferri, who has taught in Ontario high schools for 40 years, began noticing that girls were catching up to boys academically when he began teaching high school in north Toronto in the 1980s. By the 1990s, he noticed things were evenly split in terms of girls and boys' performance in science and math.

But in the last five years, he has noticed that the girls at St. Mary's High School where he teaches have been taking over. Who accounts for the most science students? The girls. Outdoor education leaders? Girls again. "We're teaching the women not to take a back seat to anybody. So they're simply shining."

Still, Dr. Ferri says boys are coming out of their shells in more traditionally female dominated subjects, like English and public speaking. He doesn't share others' concerns that boys are falling behind. "Eventually it will balance out," he said. "We'll get to the point where everything stabilizes."

Oliver Jourmel, 14, suspects his peers in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island simply don't know what they're missing. More students — girls or boys — would design science projects if they knew about all the socializing, field trips and travel that comes with competing.

"My friends laugh when I say I'm off to the science fair ... 'You're off to nerd fair' or whatever," he said. "When I come back and say I went to the aviation museum and I won $1,000 then it becomes, 'Oh wow, that's kind of cool.'"

WHIZ KIDS

Baking-soda volcanoes? Please. Canada's top young scientists tackle everything from genetics to antibiotic resistance and astrophysics. Here's a sampling of grand-prize winning projects from the Canada-Wide Science Fair:

  • 2008: Daniel Burd, a Grade 11 student from Waterloo, Ont., discovers soil microbes that can decompose plastic bags within months.
  • 2007: Emily Cooley, 18, of Calgary studies the role that stem cells play in re-occurring cancer in adults.
  • 2006: Kayla Cornale, 16, of Burlington, Ont., links musical harmonies with basic human emotions to create an educational system for autistic children.
  • 2005: Natalie Raso, a Grade 10 student from Hamilton, investigates ways to harness the power of genetically modified viruses in cancer treatment while protecting healthy cells.

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