3 things that keep poor kids out of the sciences

There is some truth to the American ideal of meritocracy. But there's a lot of myth, as well. Biologist Danielle Lee describes her experience coaching poor kids in St. Louis on science fair projects — an activity that often becomes a stepping stone to a career in the sciences. But, for the kids Lee met, intelligence and a good idea aren't enough to overcome the institutional barriers working against them. This is how discrimination happens. It's not simple and easy to fix and it isn't pretty to watch.


  1. Nice one coming up with a pure click-bait headline, but then REQUIRING a reader to CLICK THROUGH to the original post before he or she can know what you’re talking about.

    I know serious subject, good article to which your linking, etc but I couldn’t resist going meta on you.

    1. I seriously doubt Scientific American is sliding money to Maggie on the sly for a link (if that’s what you’re getting at).

  2. This may sound off-topic, but bear with me….

    My youngest came home with an interesting assignment yesterday: the students were asked to write a letter to their parents detailing their work in math learning different ways to use division, and we parents are expected to write a response including information from our own childhood experiences learning division or similar mathematical concepts at the same age.

    This has caused me to reminisce about the math class I was part of when I was her age.  It was a special class for the most gifted at a very good school (I was a scholarship kid), and the ratio was about 2:1 males to females.  Until that grade.  All of a sudden, Diane and I were the only girls left in the program, with all of the other girls dropping down into normal math or even remedial math. We asked around to try to figure out what had happened.  Turns out, the MOTHERS had told their 11-year-old daughters that they were getting to an age when boys wouldn’t be interested in them if they were too smart.

    That’s all it took.  Poof, the grade lost nearly a third of its advanced math students because trusted adults discouraged them.  And this was at a school with absolutely none of the disadvantages listed in the above article, with students who had every privilege available to them.

    It sometimes amazes me that we have as many brilliant adults doing fascinating work as we do, because it certainly seems like childhood for most kids is one long stretch of being squelched.

    1. Sex roles are drilled in to children almost from birth. That is a horrid thing to tell a daughter… :(

      Who gives a rat’s ass if boys like you? Boys are dumb. ;)

    2. one of the many podcasts i listen to (sorry for the vague, no-source information) mentioned that women telling girls (mothers telling daughters) that they hated math when they were young had a negative impact on that girl’s performance in math. :(

  3. I believe we should have a longer school year, since ours is based around antiquated family farm schedule. Include a week of in-class school wide science fair. 

    1. I’ve heard the family farm schedule thing mentioned before and it doesn’t really make sense to me. The busiest times of the year on the farm are planting and harvest. The school year here goes from September to June. Harvest is usually after school starts and planting is well before school ends.

      I expect the real reason for the school schedule taking a long break in the summer is it’s really fucking hot then. Many schools don’t have air conditioning and I know from hot and humid June days that we didn’t learn much on those days.

  4. I read this last night and can relate even though, like others in the comments here, I had none of those specific disadvantages and was in a very good (and relatively wealthy) school district.

    I have often felt like the entire structure of K-12 education is totally screwed up, essentially to the core. It requires some anecdotal evidence to come to this conclusion, but bear with me.

    Through most of my schooling I was a “B” student. I was a nerd, and intelligent if I do say so myself, but I didn’t work very hard. There was no incentive to, and I had little encouragement to – I wasn’t challenged. I earned those Bs (and a few As… and a few Cs) with exceedingly minimal effort.

    Meanwhile, there was a group of students who took advanced classes and so on (I did eventually end up in this group in high school, but far later than I should have) and got straight As in them. These people became the few friends I was left with from my school days, and I know what they’re up to these days (almost ten years later).

    Among the people who were the most promising students in high school, according to high school’s definition of a promising student (good grades, etc.), almost none are now doing what they wanted to be doing (many intended to become scientists and engineers) – not even close. Many are unemployed (myself included) and have few options.

    Granted, what you want to do with your life changes for a lot of people once they’re in college. But I can’t help but see the enormous wasted potential here – people who could be making great contributions to society, but who were discouraged or prevented from doing so.

    That discouragement takes a different form once you’re in college (or after you graduate), of course – you realize that there’s no future in what you wanted to do. People who would certainly be dedicated enough to continue anyway – they have the passion – are forced to question their resolve and end up with a lot of self-doubt. And then they switch majors to accounting (or something).

    I am probably the dumbest person from my group of high school friends, and I don’t think most K-12 teachers saw much potential in me (and the few who did I am eternally grateful to). Yet I am the only one (as far as I know) who will end up a scientist. I know at least one of my friends will probably see this comment, so let me add, the others are far from failures – there’s at least one doctor (hi Anna) and at least a couple of engineers. But I also know that those people are not necessarily doing exactly what they want to be doing (successful though those careers will make them by society’s standards), and they are the exceptions in any case. I don’t think any of the smart people I knew in high school are doing what they want and are good at.

    Which speaks to a bigger problem, beyond education – what good is education and encouragement anyway, if there’s not really a future in STEM for those who are interested and passionate about it? 

  5. My parents are both teachers and they made a lot of sacrifices to send me to the top private schools in our area of Alabama. We had some good science instruction, and we have had several students from my high school go on to MIT, just to show that we really did have some good teachers. 

    However, I now live on Long Island and my daughter goes to one of the top public schools in the country. Her high school repeatedly has winners in the Intel Science Awards, and is always competitive the Science Olympiad. The money that is put into this school system is amazing. Whereas in my high school we all took the same science classes (physics, chemistry, biology), she has a selection of courses to choose from each year. Their labs are state of the art. 

    And on top of the physical resources, the teachers are paid well, have experience in the field, and love their jobs. They spend hours outside of the classroom doing the Intel stuff and the Science Olympiad stuff.

    Every year there are votes on the school budget and parents turn out in droves to push the budget through. The parents here are university professors, scientists at Brookhaven National Labs, and doctors at the local hospital. Every year they have to fight the older people with no kids in school to push the taxes up.

    1. I went to a high school that’s been in the top 100 public high schools in the US. My hometown was predominantly working class. Despite being in the bottom third of ability to pay for education, it was in the top third of what was actually being paid. In our case, it was because at least half of my fellow students’ parents were first generation Americans and believed strongly in the value of education. And being in New England, we were governed by town meeting, where the voters crammed themselves into one room and made all the decisions for the town.

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