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Beth O’Sullivan and the Early Days of Science Club For Girls May 13, 2012

Posted by Science Club for Girls in Guest Blog.
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by Jennifer Sims, Ph.D.

Martin Luther King Jr. Open School was more than ready for science clubs. In 1994, when Beth O’Sullivan picked up her daughter Rachel from kindergarten, she received a query from the principal to all parents looking for a focus and feedback group on gender equity issues in the classroom. “How Schools Shortchange Girls,” the seminal study by the American Association of University Women, had been published not two years earlier, putting numbers to what educators, administrators, and parents had been observing for years, despite themselves.

“It was almost obvious,” says Beth, who was already running a private math tutoring program and saw signs of inequity in girls even younger than those in the AAUW study.

“We have this tendency to say a child ‘just isn’t good at math.’ But we don’t accept, except on rare occasions, that a child can’t learn to read.”

Beth teamed up with fellow parent Mary McGowan develop the ideas of the feedback group into a workable, targeted plan. They envisioned an all-female afterschool program that spanned first to eighth grade, encouraged and enlivened the learning of science before middle school, brought girls together with women mentors, and most importantly, was free.

The lofty goals were matched as much by their ambition as by the long-held traditions of activism and outreach at the King Open School. More than twelve years earlier, Dr. Robert Moses had used his grant as a MacArthur Fellow to guarantee the teaching of algebra in eighth grade there, and to initiate the redesigning of the curriculum to include experiential learning — using subway trips and lemonade stands to demonstrate concepts. His program, The Algebra Project has since become a national phenomenon, helping over 9000 socio-economically underprivileged students make the leap into higher levels of math.

“Thanks to Bob Moses and his efforts, there was already an assumption that parents could initiate something,” says Beth of the climate at King Open at the time.

With no administrative resistance, and a veritable tide of initiative, Beth and Mary set about implementing program logistics and gathering resources. “That was, right away, a part of the design,” Beth says of the choice to make the Clubs be single-sex and girls-only. “There’s a lot of research and data out there about the effect that has on learning, but for us it was automatic and natural.” Presently, she calls the all-girl strategy, “the single most successful aspect of the Clubs,” citing the fruitful mentor structure as well as the morale boost to the students: “The girls feel it’s for them — that it’s special that way.”

Having a single-sex program also allowed Beth, the volunteers, and the team she gradually recruited to refine the curriculum, to think about tailoring the program educationally, one of her specialties as a professional math tutor. “I know there are ways to present math that girls connect to better, sometimes, than others. One example is narrative potential versus lines and dots. If you can tell the problem as a story, for instance, with houses on a street, they connect to the story and it helps.”

Nonetheless, Beth hardly rules out boys in the long run. Clearly there is a need among boys for science enrichment, especially among the socio-economic demographics SCFG already reaches out to. She sees the Clubs as having multifaceted potential as they continue to grow. “I think we should continue to revisit that question,” Beth says of how boys could be included in the future.

It is not surprising to hear that, in the earliest days, recruitment on the basis of being girls was not the hard part. The other major tenet of recruitment — outreach to girls who might not otherwise have the opportunity to benefit from such a program — was more complicated. “The flyer went out,” says Beth, “and in the time it took for me to walk home with my daughter, the answering machine was full of people asking to enroll their girls.” But most of these, she says, were parents with strong educations themselves, whose girls were already participating in enrichment activities and had access to science. “These weren’t the girls on the lunch plan. We would go to every teacher, and we’d ask for them to identify girls who were especially in need of the program.”

In line with the outreach mission, keeping SCFG free — funded by grants and staffed mainly by women volunteer mentors — was essential. However, this proved even more complicated than recruiting the right girls. “Getting volunteers was a challenge. I called every science research company, every lab listed in the phone book and asked if there were any women. And at that time, most of them said ‘no’! Just a very different landscape in those days.”

However, being at the forefront of awareness helped in other ways. Beth furiously applied for grants. “I had no idea how cutthroat the nonprofit world could be. That was just really a surprise to find out.” But the money got better and better, she says, “as I got better and better — I wasn’t a trained grant writer.” And by the third or fourth year, SCFG was more than stable financially. “STEM* wasn’t an idea yet, it was just such a different climate. In some ways that made it easier — not as much competition for getting the attention of potential donors — because we were just a little bit ahead of the curve.”

Seventeen years after turning her love of tutoring into a public outreach effort with SCFG, Beth serves as an advisor to numerous programs such as SproutCamp Kaleidoscope, and Girls’ Angle , all with a common theme of bringing math and science to the community, and all incepted in the pro-science climate of the Boston area. Her voice lights up speaking of her colleagues and their programs: Ken Fan, of Girls Angle, teaches geometry through origami design, and brought a guest curriculum to SCFG girls, and helped them lead a demonstration at Children’s Museum. Sprout,which fosters “community driven science exploration,” synthesized performance art to benefit relief efforts in Haiti and sponsored Bring Your Grandma to Math Day in 2011.

Meanwhile, at SCFG, Beth has entrusted the torch to a team of directors and site managers who have refined and standardized the curriculum, handle volunteer recruitment and training and the supply pipeline, interact with faculty at the school sites, publicize, and fundraise. Of the organization, she says, “It hasn’t stayed the same — it has gotten better and better.”

*Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, which the U.S. Government group as a skill set for workers and in education


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