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Galt High engineering class has 135 students: Less than 20 of them are girls

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Posted: Friday, October 28, 2005 10:00 pm

It's Thursday afternoon and Debra Crane's engineering class at Galt High School is running like a well-oiled machine.

Students huddle over brightly colored contraptions they designed to pre-sort large blocks from small ones. The room is strewn with the tools of invention, propellors, cogs and duct tape. The walls, lined with computers, display inspirational posters.

There's only one thing missing in this class - girls.

Galt High's computer integration and manufacturing class is made up entirely of male students. Every day, about 135 engineering students walk through Crane's door. Less than 20 of them are female.

Following a trend seen nationwide, the intensive math and science classes on the Galt campus continue to be male-dominated, despite efforts to get more girls involved. It's a gender bias that Crane, herself a woman of science, personally hopes to change in the coming years.

When she earned her bachelor's degree in architecture from California Polytechnic Institute in 1979, Crane was one of only a few female graduates in her class and field of study. She said she would like to think times, and minds, have changed about women's place in math and science.

But at Galt High, engineering classes are primarily male, while the classes in Family and Consumer Education are predominately female.

"At an early age, they get imprinted that these are the fields they're supposed to get into," Crane said of the classes that appeal widely to women. "But there's a lot more out there. I'd like them to at least try (engineering) and see if they might like it."

According to a National Science Foundation study, the number of women earning a degree in engineering has doubled since 1979, but is still low. Back then, about 11 percent of female students earned such a degree. By 1998, the number had climbed to 21 percent.

There is no single reason why female students might shy away from upper-level math and science when picking a career field, sociologists say, but the issue is more complex than an inability to do the work.

"There are just biases about girls and math," said Jeanne Sheehy, spokeswoman for the Society of Women Engineers, a nonprofit organization working to see more women in the industry. "There's no scientific data that says boys are better at math than girls."

Galt High sophomore Stacy Wilson agrees that it's a woman's prerogative to choose her own path in life. This year, she and four other female students are enrolled in Crane's electronic engineering class. And by all accounts, they're loving it.

"The past 1,500 years have been, like, the man works and the woman stays home and takes care of kids," Wilson said. "(Some people) think that's still going to happen today."

Galt High School students work on projects with the many computers provided inside their engineering class Thursday. (Angelina Gervasi/News-Sentinel)

Wilson and fellow sophomores Chelsie Rodgers and Mercedes O'Brien said they've always had an interest in math and building. They also admit that there is a perception at school that girls who take elevated classes are seen as geeks.

That could be why most of the popular girls they know prefer FACE classes.

"Everyone's in FACE - it's the girlie-girl thing to do," Rodgers said. "That's just not my cup of tea."

Sheehy believes that popular culture plays a big role in attracting students to a particular career field. She cites top-rated TV shows about crime scene investigators and courtroom dramas for an apparent surge in those respective fields.

But that hasn't happened for engineering and math, Sheehy said.

"Hollywood hasn't done us any favors - it's still a white guy with a pocket protector," she added with a chuckle.

Crane admits her classes might need to advertise more widely to girls on campus. She hopes next year to do more outreach to middle school girls coming to Galt High.

Marylou Bagatan

Seniors Louise Bui and Marylou Bagatan, who were having lunch in the Galt High courtyard Thursday, said they didn't know there was an engineering program on campus. However, it's not something they would likely have been interested in if they had known.

Bagatan, who hopes to one day work in the health care industry, said she could probably do well in Crane's classes if she really dedicated herself to them, but added that math and science weren't her strong suits.

"I like secretarial stuff," said Bui, adding that she hopes to take business classes in college. "I picture myself in an office someday."

Louise Bui

Christopher Lindsley, a senior in the all-male manufacturing class, said most girls stick with interests and career choices that are safe, while guys are more interested in exploring the unknown. But the two types of thinking might make for a more dynamic class, he admitted.

"Guys don't communicate as well," he said, as a classmate comically flexed his biceps in the background in response. "Girls like talking about their feelings and things they see as relevant. They'd bring a different perspective."

Contact reporter Sara Cardine at sarac@lodinews.com.

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