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Where are the future scientists?

Kids' lack of interest troubles the industry

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Science needs an image makeover. Not that lab coats, calculators, and formaldehyde were ever in, but the dwindling number of students who pursue a career in the field has executives at many sci-tech companies scrambling to find their future top thinkers.

In recent years, the answer has been to search for bright minds among girls, who continue to be underrepresented. Studies have pointed to a gender gap in math, science, and technology, and the media have covered the topic relentlessly.

But lately, boys are almost as likely to look elsewhere for careers. The real problem facing science may not be the gender gap at all, but that the industry typically attracts, and rewards, a specific type of behavior, one that leaves many - and often girls in particular - avoiding it altogether.

"Scientists are opinionated people," says Michelle Thaller, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. "The point is to prove the establishment wrong. And that's the single biggest challenge facing women in science: You're expected to act aggressively, and nobody trains you for that."

IBM, among others, has caught on to this dynamic. It designed a computer camp with low-income middle school girls in mind, but the question has shifted from "How do we draw a diverse population?" to, simply, "How do we make science attractive?" Known as EXITE - "Exploring Interests in Technology and Engineering" - the camp has expanded in its five years to 30 locations, including South Africa and Chile. The task isn't simply to teach science, but to learn how to teach it.

According to the brochure, Karyn Greene is supposed to be an "aspiring technologist." Hand-picked among the brightest of her Boston-area peers for the EXITE summer camp, the eighth-grader stands out among the gaggle of 30 giggling girls with her quick wit and bright smile.

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