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Math + Science + Girls = A Career : * Education: Academy uses a special curriculum and mentor programs to help boost the number of women and minorities in the fields of mathematics and science.

March 11, 1992|MICHELE FUETSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If schools subtly discourage girls from studying math and science--as a recent report by a prestigious women's group contends--Winnie Lu of Long Beach, 15, missed the message.

"We're going to dissect a brain," the would-be neurosurgeon said gleefully as she left algebra class last week, bound for her school's anatomy lab.

Sunita Chatterjee missed the message too. The 15-year-old Torrance girl wants to become a chemical engineer because, she says, "I like chemistry a lot."

Such career plans are the rule rather than the exception among female students at the California Academy of Mathematics and Science, the Carson high school that Lu and Chatterjee attend.

Founded two years ago on the campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills by eight area school districts, the academy aims to boost the number of women and minorities in the fields of math and science.

Among other things, that means overcoming educational inequities that hamper young female students, school officials say--a problem cited in a study released Feb. 12 by the American Assn. of University Women (AAUW).

The study asserts that girls are shortchanged academically--receiving, for instance, less attention from teachers than boys and less exposure to scientific instruments. As a result, the study says, girls in their preteen years lose confidence in their ability to handle math and science, ultimately shying away from the subjects.

"That's why we have to have schools like this . . . ," said Kathy Clark, principal of the Carson academy. "We take the math phobia and the science phobia and the career aspiration programming and turn that around."

Housed in two single-story modular buildings at the south side of the Cal State campus, the academy serves 250 students, 86% of them minorities and 52% of them female.

The school draws its students from the eight districts that operate it: Hawthorne, Inglewood, Lawndale, Torrance, Palos Verdes Peninsula, Compton, Long Beach and Los Angeles, which also serves Carson, among other communities. Its funding has come mainly from the districts, with additional money from aerospace companies and other high-tech businesses.

One of the academy's prime means of encouraging female students is mentor programs, which allow youngsters to develop close ties with a professional working in business, industry or medicine. Barbara Huntington, the academy staff member in charge of the program, reports that female professionals have shown a great willingness to serve as mentors.

"I think it's because there are so few women in math and science that they want to give (something) back," Huntington said.

One mentor, 24-year-old Deborah Hall, points out that many of the students come from families in which the mothers are housewives.

"I think the biggest value (of the mentor program) is having a (professional) role model," said Hall, an engineer at the Aerospace Corp., a nonprofit aerospace company in El Segundo that serves as a research and development arm for the Air Force.

Elizabeth Sanchez, 15, says that her mentor, a female science professor at Dominguez Hills, has made her feel confident she can reach her own career goal: to become a zoologist.

"It makes me feel I can do it because for the most part, all I've seen is men doing it," Sanchez said. "Every time you read a National Geographic article, it's signed by a man."

Some girls at the academy acknowledge that their interest in academic pursuits can isolate them from their peers.

"My friends in my neighborhood, they say, 'Lan, you're a nerd,' (and) stuff like that because I'm so wrapped up in school," said Lan Tran, a 16-year-old who wants to be a surgeon.

Female students say that in the classroom they see few signs of the sexual discrimination alluded to in the AAUW study. The one exception some girls cited was a history class in which students formed work groups to produce props, displays and other items typical of the Renaissance period.

"The guys built and the girls wrote," Elizabeth Viger said.

Anatomy teacher Joe Marovich says that in at least one area, his female students have proven to be more aggressive learners. He conducted a lesson featuring a dissected animal and found to his surprise that most of the boys declined to poke around inside it with a scalpel.

"The girls lined right up. The girls seemed to like the hands-on thing," Marovich said.

Indeed, there are plenty of indications at the academy that females are not intimidated by math and science. Math phobic, for instance, is no way to describe 15-year-old Nesa Wright of Long Beach.

"I'm going to take math analysis and trig this summer if they (offer) it," said Wright, a 10th-grader who wants to be an architect.

Chemistry and physics, meanwhile, do not daunt Joy Collins of Inglewood, student body president at the academy. She gets A's in both.

"In other schools some of the education may be centered more around males," said Collins, a 10th-grader. "But it's not a problem here."

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