Barrington High School junior Karen Rojas isn't yet sure what she wants to pursue as a career, but it likely will have something to do with math or science. That's why the 16-year-old is trying to squeeze five years of science into her high school career.
"I am just trying to get a good base for my future," said Rojas, who is part of the school's math team and is taking accelerated math, pre-calculus and Advanced Placement physics her junior year.
She is one example of female high school students trying to break the mold and succeed in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as STEM, which historically have been dominated by males.
Although girls and women have made significant progress in the 40 years since the introduction of Title IX -- the law that prohibits educational programs that receive federal funding from discriminating on the basis of sex -- students and educators say more work is needed to truly level the playing field.
A Daily Herald analysis based on data from the 2011 Illinois School Report Card found that while female students at the 25 top performing high schools in suburban Chicago scored higher than their male counterparts in the reading section of the 2011 Prairie State Achievement Exam, boys continue to outperform girls in the areas of math and science.
The achievement gap in math and science is neither new nor exclusive to Illinois. Data from Illinois Interactive Report Cards between 2002 and 2011 shows that while female students performed on par with their male classmates in meeting state standards, girls are lagging behind boys in exceeding those state standards.
Test data from surrounding states also reveals a gender gap. In Iowa, the difference between male and female students who earned high results was 10.8 percentage points. Boys in Michigan outperformed girls by 2.5 percentage points in math and 4.9 percentage points in science.
Local schools are finding ways to narrow the divide. From actively encouraging girls to take on upper level math and science classes, to having female educators in leading roles, here are ways in which the highest performing schools for both boys and girls are working to close the gender gap between the sexes:
Having a female role model gives girls the motivation to take on courses they may consider a "boys' class," like upper level calculus or physics, said Robert McBride, principal at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, where five out of seven physics teachers are female.
"It matters to students to see someone like them in the class," McBride said. "They've got to see people like themselves in activities, whether it's teachers or fellow students. We have robust gender balance here in our staff, and that helps."
Students noticed the balance, too. Nandita Venkatesan, 17, a 2012 graduate of Neuqua Valley now studying computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said her teachers proved women could do it all. "There are women achieving Ph.D.'s and master's degrees who have families. That's encouraging."
In addition, McBride said, teachers and guidance counselors work closely with students to determine which courses they should take in the upcoming year. That enables the district to purposefully connect with women and minority students for areas like engineering where there is a historical lack of diversity.
"We encourage students to take upper level and more challenging classes; we are purposeful about that," McBride said. "We have learned from students that there has to be an invitation. You cannot assume that they will pick a certain course. It really matters to a kid that someone says they will be great in this class."
Additionally, groups specifically geared toward science, math and engineering -- like the ISTEM Club, JETS and Science Olympia at Neuqua Valley -- are ways in which local schools are attracting more girls to STEM. School leaders also have credited the national pre-engineering curriculum, Project Lead the Way, which is aimed at giving middle and high school students the hands-on experience to determine if they are interested in an engineering career.
Neuqua Valley's results showed the gap between boys and girls meeting and exceeding standards in math was 5.3 percentage points and in science was 2.5 percentage points. However, the divide was more pronounced among students exceeding state standards. Boys were ahead in math by 13.8 percentage points and 13.4 percentage points in science.
At Barrington High School, where 50 percent of the staff members in the math and science departments are female, a greater rate of girls than boys met or exceeded state standards in all three subject areas of the Prairie State Achievement Exam in 2011.
In math, 79.3 percent of girls met or exceeded standards, compared to 77.1 percent of boys. The gap was smaller for science with 79.8 percent of girls meeting or exceeding, compared to 79.5 percent of boys. The largest gap -- 6.3 percent -- was in reading scores with 80.3 percent of girls meeting or exceeding compared to 74 percent of boys.
The difference in the percentage of male and female students exceeding standards in math and science favored boys, though by the smallest margin of the 25 top schools. In science, the difference was 5.2 percentage points, while the gap in math was 0.8 of a percentage point.
Although girls at Barrington High School are setting the pace among suburban schools, Principal Steve McWilliams said educators do not actively seek out girls but encourage all students to challenge themselves.
"It is hard to believe we even need to consider Title IX anymore," McWilliams said. "We don't necessarily see students as boys or girls. I know that was an issue in the past, but we want to do everything we can for all of our students, and we make efforts to make sure everyone has opportunities."
Maria Vlahos, mathematics division head at Barrington High School, said teachers do, however, recognize that boys and girls learn differently -- especially in math.
"Teachers differentiate lesson plans for all students and use technology in different ways," Vlahos said. "A lot of time is spent observing, and we focus on how the student is learning rather than how the teacher is teaching. It is more coaching and facilitating dialogue rather than a teacher imparting knowledge while standing at the front of the room."
Vlahos said the department is trying to take away the stigma of needing to find the right answer every time in math, especially for girls. Instead, the math department is incorporating problem-based activities that teach students that there is more than one way to solve a problem.
"It takes away the aspect of wrong and right," Vlahos said. "We want students to talk about how they got those answers and what logic they used to get there."
While Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire does not actively seek out female teachers for math or science classes, Steve Wood, director of science, said the department is conscious of the mix.
"Half of our physics and chemistry teachers are female," Wood said. "Women are also our science club sponsors and lead independent research for our students. When students see role models, they are drawn to that and dive right in."
Fremd and Conant
In Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, where Palatine's Fremd High School and Hoffman Estates' Conant High School made the Daily Herald's Top 25 list of schools with the narrowest achievement gap, girls in elementary school feeder programs from Palatine Township Elementary District 15 and Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 can participate in GEMS -- Girls in Engineering, Math, and Science.
Theresa Busch, curriculum director in District 211, said GEMS is a conference for fifth- and sixth-grade students and their parents to learn about STEM. The gap between girls and boys who met or exceeded standards at Fremd was 1.2 percentage points in math and 2.1 percentage points in science. Results at Conant were similar with boys outperforming girls by 2.6 percentage points in math and 2 percentage points in science. In both cases, when looking only at those who exceeded state standards, male students outperformed girls by about 10 percentage points.
"I am not even sure that kids that age know what engineering is unless they have a parent or someone they know in the field," Busch said. "We have a female engineer at Conant who talks to the girls and there are activities that are taught by women in the field. It is a way to get kids excited about science and math."
In its first two years, the GEMS conference attracted more than 150 students each year, Busch said.
Andresse St. Rose, a senior researcher at the American Association of University Women, said girls need to foster their interest in science and math through encouragement from a role model and to see women who are succeeding in STEM.
"For girls, that external validation is key," St. Rose said.
Some of the barriers preventing girls from performing at the same level as boys are the same ones that existed 40 years ago when Title IX was enacted, St. Rose said.
"Cultural and environmental factors could explain why we see gender gaps," St. Rose said. "People underestimate the power of stereotypes that are prevalent from an early age and have a measurable and adverse effect on girls -- especially in the areas of math and science. Girls don't need encouragement to go into areas that are seen as female appropriate."
St. Charles North
Participation in STEM is particularly critical for females to succeed in today's workforce.
"That's the future; that's where we know where jobs are going," said Kim Zupec, principal at St. Charles North High School. "It is also important to make female students well-rounded, which is what we want for all of our students. Liberal arts are important and the fine arts are important, but let's make sure they have technical skills, too."
In the view of Barrington High School Junior Karen Rojas, perceptions must be reshaped if girls are to catch up to boys in STEM, but stereotypes don't change quickly.
"When we are being raised, girls are told that they should stay at home and that they are weaker than men," Rojas said. "Even when you buy a girl a doll, even if it is not intentionally, you are putting in her head that she should just be a mom. I don't like that. I want to show that we have the same abilities as men, we have just as much brainpower and are capable of the same things."