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How Technology Cheats Girls

by Carolyn Csongradi


The project involved integrating history, philosophy, and science by requiring students to read about the origins of scientific thinking beginning with the Greeks. The students then discussed the changing roles of women in science, the influence of religion and Plato's and Aristotle's view of the universe. She shared her project at a meeting in the form of a paper. Her hypothesis development and subsequent statistical analysis are a part of Action Research, but not a requirement.


Chemistry is a college preparatory science taught at Burlingame High School, an ethnically diverse, urban public school of about 1300 students located in San Mateo County. The class requires one year of algebra as a prerequisite and therefore contains students who are not fully representative of the school's population. Each year approximately 200 students, primarily juniors, are enrolled in the chemistry sections.

During the first semester, 90 students were assigned a research project which asked questions about the history of science in the context of western civilization. One of the goals of the project was to develop a framework for integrating information from other subjects taught at Burlingame. A second goal was to provide a type of assignment which might encourage young women in the area of science.

For the past several years, research has shown that females are less likely to pursue careers in the field of physical science than are males. Lack of appropriate role models, test biases and perceptions of science as being "male domain" have been cited as reasons for this observation. This project was structured to take advantage of areas in which female students have traditionally performed well - philosophy, history and relationships. Additionally, the required reading and related questions pointed out that historically females have been largely denied a voice in the evolution of scientific thinking beginning with the classical age of the Greeks.


  • Prior to the project, individual students were asked to construct a chart comparing and contrasting the views of Plato and Aristotle. Information for the chart was found in a teacher prepared written summary. No other sources were suggested.

  • The main project required reading a teacher prepared summary of portions of a western civilization book The Passion of the Western Mind. Essay questions about the origin of various scientific ideas were asked followed by a vocabulary list and historical timeline. Students were also encouraged to seek other sources of information. Two of the five questions required female points of view in the answers.

  • Students were permitted to work alone or in pairs of their own choosing for the main project. No class time was devoted to the project nor were computer or library research techniques taught.

Project Results and Comparative Data: N = 42 males & 48 females

Aristotle and Plato pre-project assignment:
Average Score Out of 25 Points
47 females submitted the chart 20.8
35 males submitted the chart 17.2
excluded from analysis:
7 males and 1 female who did not submit an assignment

Main Project:
Average Score Out of 100 Points
10 female students worked alone 91.1%
15 female student worked in pairs 87.3%
5 females worked with a male partner 76.8%
15 males worked alone 89.0%
8 males worked with a male partner 89.6%
excluded from the data analysis:
2 females who did not complete all the work
2 males who failed to do the project
1 female whose parent objected
2 males who did not complete all the work

Final Examination: 100 multiple choice questions
Average Score Out of 100 Points
48 females 56.9 %
42 males 60.4%

Semester Grade (1/3/96), before including the project or the final examination:
Average Percent
48 females 75.9%
42 males 75.5%

Observations and Analysis:

  • The comparative chart of Aristotle and Plato was completed on a piece of legal size paper provided by the teacher. Most of the charts were submitted in handwriting. Although many charts also had artistic touches which were not required or suggested, no additional credit was given. Females performed significantly better than males on the assignment (p<.001). 7 males and 1 female did not turn in the assignment and were not a part of the analysis.

  • No statistically significant differencesbetween males or females working alone or with the same sex were found in the final project grades, although females working alone had the best scores. However, when females worked with a male partner, their grades were significantly lower than any other combination (p<.001).

  • The average final exam score was higher for males than females. Although the difference was not statistically significant (p<.13), this bias is reported elsewhere when multiple choice exams are used.

  • Males and females were equal in semester grades prior to the final and the project scores.


A working hypothesis for the design of this project had been that females should perform better than males on a project which emphasizes writing, philosophy and history. In the main, this hypothesis was not supported. Except in the case where females worked with a male partner, the final project grades were statistically equal.

While reading the projects, an additional variable became apparent. The computer and peripheral equipment played a key research as well as word processing role. A follow-up survey of student computer use for this project showed that about two-thirds used on-line and/or CD ROM technology to gather information. The majority found these sources very helpful. Unfortunately, computers are viewed as part of the male domain, particularly when introduced in the context of math classes. This observation is true despite the fact that chemistry students began playing video games and using computers at the same average ages (9 or 11 years), regardless of gender. However, one difference is the fact that males are statistically more likely to be frequent users of games AND have a greater interest in on-line interactive computer research tools such as the Internet and World Wide Web. The computer portion of this project may have not only been a grade "equalizer", but reinforced the sense of male domination in science.

When the assignment did not involve computer use, the females not only had superior scores, but 16% of the males failed to do the work. While this is one explanation for how the females' lower test scores on the final exam can be off-set in calculating the final semester grades, females reportedly give more credence to test scores than grades.


AAUW Report: How Schools Shortchange Girls, 1992
Sadker: Failing at Fairness, 1994
Tarnas: The Passion of the Western Mind, 1991

Carolyn Csongradi
Chemistry Teacher
Burlingame High School
(415) 342-8971 [email protected]

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