Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Science More Enjoyable for All

Rebecca's picture

As a senior biology major in a gender and science studies class, I have decided to look back and reflect on my past four years as a female science major at Bryn Mawr College.  The primary focus of this class is on the field of physics. Physics has not been as successful as biology in attracting women to the field and in placing women in top level positions.  In 1997, 47% of PhDs in biology were awarded to women while only 22% of PhDs in the physical sciences (Thom 67). However, liberal arts colleges and women’s colleges in particular are noted for turning out large numbers of women scientists and Bryn Mawr fits nicely into these categories with biology consistently being one of the most popular majors.  I would like to discuss which parts of my undergraduate experience were the most rewarding and which were the most discouraging because these experiences are relevant to the discussion of how our society creates female scientists. Throughout grade school, high school, and in the first year of undergraduate work, changes need to be made that will attract more of both men and women to the sciences.  However, in the last years of undergraduate work when women are about to enter into the work force, more should be done to encourage them to stay in science despite certain disheartening social factors. 

      The creation of a scientifically literate society is extremely important.  People should be given to the tools to understand what they hear when they go to the doctor and what they hear in the news.  From an ecologist’s perspective, a society that better understands their relationship with their environment is a society that will take better care of their environment.  Society is made up of both men and women so it is important to engage both women and men and girls and boys in the sciences. 

      In her paper They’re not Dumb, They’re Different: Stalking the Second Tier, Sheila Tobias argues that changes should be made in the way science is taught at the undergraduate level in order to attract a more diverse group of people to the sciences.  She uses the terms first tier and second tier to refer to different types of potential scientists.  Those in the first tier are “born” scientists meaning that it does not matter what their experience of learning science is like, they will become scientists.  The second tier refers to a large group of people who if exposed to the right types of teachers and classes could thrive in the sciences but all too often do not.  Tobias argues that every year we may lose 200,000 potential scientists from this tier because they do not have a positive science experience (Tobias 14). 

      I agree that the major leak in the science pipeline does occur in college.  In my high school and grade school experience, courses in the sciences were mandatory.  This does not mean that the way they were taught was ideal but everyone was still required to participate and therefore received some science exposure.  It is in college, particularly in the introductory classes where people decide for themselves whether or not they will continue on in the sciences.

What makes for a positive undergraduate science experience?

      My most rewarding experiences in biology were not the ones where I was lectured at and tested on copious amounts of facts and equations.   The most rewarding classes I took were those that put the facts I was memorizing into context.  Introduction to Evolution and Biology and Public Policy are two classes that really stood out for this reason.  Evolution is a history of biology in two different ways.  First, biology is defined as the study of life and evolution is the history of how life was created and how it came to be in the form it is in today.  Second, the study of evolution leads you through the development of the theory of evolution discussing individual scientists and their contributions.  The history begins with the Comte de Buffon who first proposed that species were changing over time (Evolution) and leads us through the theorists to Charles Darwin who proposed natural selection as the mechanism for how these changes were occurring.  Biology and Public Policy was a more recent history of biology explaining current issues such as stem cell research, reproductive technologies, and genetic modification.  This class not only put the facts I was learning in other classes into context but provided me with an opportunity to lead and participate in discussion centering on these issues. 

      Other rewarding experiences I had all took place in lab settings, especially smaller labs where I could work with a small number of students designing our own experiments.  The summer before my senior year I even had the opportunity to research in Dr. Peter Brodfeuhrer’s lab with one other student where we collaborated to design and execute an experiment over a ten week period.  This prolonged, hands-on experience contrasted with my less rewarding experiences such as biology 101 where we were required to cover a vast amount of material and the labs were cookie cutter labs that were designed for us. 

       Bryn Mawr’s success at producing women biologists can be attributed to the department’s dedication to hands-on learning and classes like the two discussed above that create a narrative and put theory into the context of student’s lives.  For many second tier students Bio 101 is their only encounter with the department. Therefore, changes in the way Introductory Biology is taught would attract a more diverse array of students to the major. 

      The results of Tobias’s study of second tier men and women show that the men also desired a more conceptual, interactive framework for an introductory level class.  Therefore, improvements that can be made to draw more women into the sciences would also draw more men into the sciences, increasing scientific literacy overall which is desirable.  However, there are some changes that can be made that would be more specific to women.

       As a possible drop in the leaking science pipeline, I think more should be done to encourage women to stick with the sciences as they are planning to graduate and enter into the work force. It is important to have women role models who show that it is possible to have a successful career and a family.  In the Evolution narrative there wasn’t any women. It is also, important to show female undergraduates that there are other places that careers in science can go besides the competitive, masculine world of academia. “More than their male classmates, women appear ‘uncomfortable working in the intensely competitive environment’ that characterizes many introductory science classes.   (Mannis, et al) speculate that this ‘unease’ may contribute to the higher attrition rate of women considering a science major (Mannis cited in Tobias 70).”  Undergraduate women should be informed of career opportunities that they may find more “friendly” and that they would be more likely to pursue.

      In conclusion, institutional factors at the undergraduate level should be changed in order to encourage a larger, more diverse group of both men and women to enter into the sciences.  In order to stop the leak of women that occurs from the undergraduate to the career level, social factors should be accounted for and women should be made to feel more comfortable entering into science careers.



Evolution Revolution: 1749: Comte de Buffon (Rise of Evolution) Accessed 2/26/07


Manis, Jean D,, Nancy G. Thomas, Barbara F. Sloat, and Cinda-Sue Davis,

(cited in Tobias 1990. 70).  “An analysis of Factors Affecting Choices of Majors in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering at the University of Michigan,” CEW (Center for the Education of women) Research Report No. 23. July 1989. 


Tobias, Sheila. They're Not Dumb, They're Different: Stalking the Second Tier. Tucson, AZ: Research Corporation, 1990.


Thom, Mary. Part 3: Academia--Graduate School and Beyond. Balancing the Equation: Where Are Women and Girls in Science, Engineering and Technology? New York: National Council for Research on Women. 2001.