According to the National Science Foundation report of April, 1987:
... of 4 million high school sophomores in 1977, 750,000 claimed to be "interested" in studying science and engineering. But of these, a mere 9,700, or 0.24 percent of the original sophomore population, were expected to achieve the Ph.D. degree in one of the sciences or engineering.
Tobias used the concept of "tiers" to describe groups of college students who have various attitudes towards math and science. She assigned students to the first tier who will be mathematicians and scientists. In the second tier were students who are highly verbal, are capable of doing math and science, but have not chosen these majors for a variety of reasons. The third tier was made up of "utilitarians," students who are studying math and science as a stepping-stone towards another goal. The fourth tier can be viewed as the under-prepared students who are faced with material they are not yet ready to learn. The fifth tier was described as the "unlikelies," students who are hostile to science and math at the outset of their coursework.
In her study, Tobias focused on the second tier students. To do this, she chose individuals who enrolled in one of the introductory level physical science classes, and asked these students to focus on what made them uncomfortable about the class as they learned the material. Their observations, which were recorded in a journal, included comments about teaching styles, responses of their classmates, types of assignments, types of tests, and how they felt about the type of learning that was needed in order to be successful in the class. The data suggested that the needs of students in the second tier were not met by the curriculum and teaching techniques found in those courses.
We have selected pieces of this model that apply to math and science students in secondary schools. The first tier would be students who are enrolled in Advanced Placement and Honors classes. The second tier would be students who have academic ability but are not necessarily enrolled in advanced level courses. Many of these students enter the ninth grade with positive attitudes about math and science, yet leave twelfth grade convinced that they no longer want to study these subjects. The third tier would be students who are enrolled in non-college preparatory classes, and in the fourth tier we place students whose primary concerns are necessarily outside the classroom.
At the college level, students not only have a choice regarding size and location of school, but also the classes in which they choose to enroll. At the secondary level choices are limited for most students. Course selection is usually determined by external expectations and students rarely have much choice in these matters. Teachers, therefore, are obligated to address the needs of all tiers. Even though tiers three and four might be disregarded by teachers at the college level, it is our obligation to address the needs of students at all levels.
Although Tobias' study was at the college level, she made several suggestions and observations that are applicable to secondary schools. Students need to know that to succeed in math and science classes they have to study hard, study continuously, and perhaps study differently from the way they study other subjects. Teachers need to teach these skills.
The study also suggests that students need an overview of the material to facilitate connections between previous experiences and the current material. They need time to reflect, to process information and to discuss work with peers. Group work that provides these opportunities enables students to develop a sense of community and to work collaboratively. Students should be presented with some open-ended questions and problems in both homework assignments and tests. Students can also be asked to respond to their problem-solving in written form. This process gives them the opportunity to question and react to their work. This last strategy is supported by the work of Joan Countryman, who found that when students wrote about mathematics they were better able to understand and appreciate the material.
Although our initial intent was to consider Tobias' paper from the viewpoint of gender equity in math and science, we now see the problem in a broader context. Modifying a course to implement the suggestions mentioned would benefit not only females but anyone who has struggled with these courses. The nontypical math and science student who is offered these alternate approaches may very well find another route to success.