Science Policy For All

Because science policy affects everyone.

Science Policy Around the Web – May 4, 2016

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By: Cheryl Jacobs Smith, Ph.D.

Science Education Policy

Are Science Lecture Classes Sexist?

Students of both sexes complain it is increasingly more difficult to get A’s in college science and math classes then in other non-science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) classes. However, women are suffering disproportionately to a “grade penalty” in sciences versus male college students.

A study from the University of Michigan, that has been submitted to the open access journal, PLoS One, observed that female college student typically earn half a letter grade lower in large, introductory math or science courses than in other classes at the university. In contrast, male college students only received a grade that was a third of a letter grade lower. Both sexes do worse in the introductory chemistry course, however, female college students experience a “grade penalty” more often than male college students.

What is interesting is that the reverse is true when looking at STEM laboratory grades and breaking it down by gender. Female college students do better overall in laboratory classes compared to lecture and even outscore their male counterparts. The author of the study, Dr. Timothy McKay, a Michigan professor of physics, contributes this difference the the fact that labs allow time for students to go at their own pace and polish up their reports without a ticking time clock — such as you have with in-class timed examinations. Why would women do worse on objective, timed tests? McKay speculates that something called “stereotype threat” is at play, whereby women may not perform at their best when they feel that they are in an environment where women don’t succeed. Timed tests add an element of stress, which can trigger this sort of self-doubting, counterproductive anxiety.

McKay is now conducting experiments to see if he can level the playing field. In some lecture classes, he is replacing a few high-stakes exams with biweekly in-class quizzes. The hope is that more frequent evaluation will lower stress levels and diminish self-doubt. He is also working with psychologists to program an online coaching system to send reassuring messages to female students, designed to reduce anxiety. (Jill Barshay, U.S. News).

STEM Education

Top business leaders, 27 governors, urge Congress to boost computer science education

Top businesses in the United States — Apple, Facebook, Target, Walmart, and AT&T—are calling on Congress to improve computer science education in all K-12 schools. The companies worry that the U.S. is losing its competitive edge in science among the nation’s youth in technological fields. A bipartisan coalition of 27 governors has joined the effort. They hope by supporting the teaching of coding and programming that this will draw in middle-class jobs to their states. Moreover, with children who are trained in computer science and math, they will be giving them the skills they need to be successful in a modern economy. “Our schools should give all students the opportunity to understand how this technology works, to learn how to be creators, coders, and makers — not just consumers,” they wrote Tuesday in an open letter to lawmakers. “Instead, what is increasingly a basic skill is only available to the lucky few, leaving most students behind, particularly students of color and girls.”

It is estimated that nearly 500,000 U.S. jobs require some level of computer-science understanding, yet three-quarters of the nation’s public schools do not offer any computer science courses, often forcing companies to turn to foreign workers for specialized skills. To make matters worse, the federal government has virtually no federal funding dedicated to enhancing computer science offerings in K-12 schools. For many schools, computer science education is treated as an elective: a nice-to-have option for the few students who are naturally inclined to seek it out. However, there is a push to treat computer science as a core subject instead, such as algebra or biology, to which every student is exposed. “It just seems so ridiculously obvious that our education policy has to include computer science as a basic. The fact that you’d even discuss it seems absurd,” said Barry Diller, chairman of the online travel company Expedia and of IAC, which owns websites including the Daily Beast, Dictionary.com and the dating site Match.com.

Business leaders say democratizing access to computer science will give students a leg up in the burgeoning tech fields but also in almost any job. “Computer science is not just about becoming an engineer, but teaching people how to think in a different way, in a critical way,” said Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive of Twitter. “That can be helpful in any field.” (Emma Brown, Washington Post).

Science in Health

After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight

“The Biggest Loser” is a reality TV show where contestants who are extremely overweight compete in their weight loss efforts and whoever is ‘the biggest loser’ wins. Danny Cahill, winning contestant from Season 8 of NBC’s television show said, “I’ve got my life back. I mean, I feel like a million bucks” upon winning. However, in the 5 years since the show’s end, he has gained more than 100 pounds back despite his best efforts. In fact, most of the season’s contestants have regained most if not all the weight they lost. Surprisingly, some are even heavier now.

Kevin Hall, a scientist at a federal research center, had the idea to follow contestants from “The Biggest Loser” for six years. The project was first to measure what happened to people over that time period. Their stunning results showed the body’s resistance to weight loss. “It is frightening and amazing,” said Dr. Hall, an expert on metabolism at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. “I am just blown away.”

A person’s resting metabolism, which determines how many calories a person burns at rest, is set to the individual’s body weight set-point. Therefore, when a person deliberately loses weight, regardless of if they are a normal weight or not, the body will slow its metabolism to thwart their best efforts.

It was already known that those who deliberately lose weight will have a slower metabolism when the diet ends. So the researchers were not surprised to see that “The Biggest Loser” contestants had slower metabolisms when the show ended. What shocked the researchers was as the years went by and the numbers on the scale climbed, the contestants’ metabolisms did not recover. They became even slower, and the pounds kept piling on. It was as if their bodies were intensifying their effort to pull the contestants back to their original weight. These research findings give insight into the nation’s obesity problem and the struggles individuals go through to keep the weight off. (Tracey Yukich, The New York Times).

 

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

May 4, 2016 at 9:00 am

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