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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.” (more…)