Applying Sports Lessons to Science Education

April 1, 2007

On the playing fields of Stanford University, Kristina Johnson earned a reputation as a fierce field hockey and lacrosse player. While conducting postdoctoral work at Trinity College in Ireland, she secured a spot on the Irish women’s cricket team. (To her regret, she says, work obligations precluded her from accepting an invitation a few years later to join the team in World Cup play in Australia.) She’s also earned a red belt in Tae Kwon Do.

It seems apt, therefore, that Johnson, the first woman dean in the history of the Pratt School of Engineering, would look to the success of Title IX in the athletic arena to call for similar progress in the sciences. Speaking to the U.S. Senate subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space in 2002, Johnson asked, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could see the same advances in the academic world of science and engineering participation by women as we have produced due to Title IX legislation?”

The subcommittee considered a variety of barriers that prevent women from gaining parity with men in the sciences. For her part, Johnson recommended reshaping high-school curricula to require four years of math and one year each of biology, chemistry, and physics; and increasing financial aid and child-care support for women in graduate school.

Johnson acknowledges that Title IX’s success in the athletic realm came about, in part, because of actual or threatened high-visibility lawsuits. Given the snail’s pace at which changes are made to national public-school curriculums, and the lack of political muscle that most graduate students have to lobby for change, creating opportunities for women scientists will take time. But it is essential to remedy the disparity, she says, to produce a highly skilled technical workforce.

“Imagine trying to walk on to the women’s or men’s basketball team at Duke without ever having played the sport,” she says. “And yet that’s what we do for girls and boys in preparing them to even consider a career in science, math, engineering, or technology.”