Why Is There a Disconnect for Girls and STEM Education in Middle School?

This subject evokes a strong reaction in me and it is one for which I have and will fight for change. When my daughter was in fourth grade, she wanted to participate in chess club. We were told, “that is for boys.” Reality check…seriously?  That was about 10-15 years ago. I never forgot this incident and continued to foster my daughter’s interest in math and science. Truthfully, it took many years for her to gain the needed confidence that she was good at these subjects. I had documentation of her aptitude, and she liked them, but that wasn’t enough. The words and subtle attitudes of teachers and other mentors spoke loudly. This experience led me to a long crusade as the advocate for young women in STEM subjects.

I started a chess club and expanded it to both an after school program and lunchtime program. I tried to get it curricular – didn’t happen, but I did collect data on the benefits of chess to math achievement. As a volunteer, I did science and  physics experiments with elementary kids fostering the ideas of creativity and making science REAL. Working on my second graduate degree, I made arts integrated curriculum my mission. Through this mission, my intent was/is to discover and foster young girls to pursue their interest in science and mathematics. I did a research project on how and why some show interest and aptitude and then, what happens to that interest as girls turn into young women. Findings were quite interesting and at that time around five years ago, there was little research on that subject. Long and short of it, there are many influences, but the parents are the strongest. Subliminal suggestions about what is and what is not appropriate for girls was the main reason. Many of the comments from parents were unclear. They would of course say they encouraged their daughter to be good at math and at the same time indicated that boys may not like you if you were. Pretty complicated really. Subtle messages are everywhere to include one’s own already embedded prejudices. The parental influence is so strong because it starts at birth and it never goes away. I understand it because I lived it, but that was a different time, and although it is better in some ways now, it is still not good enough. Women want to be equal, and often believe they are, but still cling to the need to be feminine. (I am not suggesting that they not be feminine, just that this femininity has no relationship to career choice and ability).

Women have advanced a great deal in the biological sciences, including chemical engineering. But other disciplines, such as mechanical and aerospace engineering and computer science still have a sparse representation from women. My daughter graduated three years ago with a degree in aerospace engineering. Less than 10% of her freshman class were women, less than 5% graduated. My numbers are a ball park figure for one program, not a statistic from a scientific study, so they may not be exact.

So, to the important stuff…HOW TO CHANGE THIS!!

Change is slow, but there are positive signs. A huge change happens to girls in the middle school years. They get interested in boys and as a result, don’t want to compete in a “man’s world.” Well, at least most of them don’t. A science teacher once said to me,  “The girls think it is cool to be dumb, but they aren’t.” Parents and teachers need some guidance to watch what they say or infer. Much of this happens subconsciously. Teachers select certain students for participation in science and math activities, not based on interest or aptitude alone. Sometimes it is from their own preconceived prejudices. If a young woman looks too feminine, maybe she shouldn’t take part in the robotics competition? Do a Rubik’s cube–no, maybe get your nails done is more appropriate. They are not mutually exclusive–that is femininity and science and math aptitude.

Fostering development for all students, girls in particular, must begin when they are young. Lots of fun activities exist for Kindergarten through Fourth Grade. The integration of these activities can be throughout the curriculum and the teachers and parents must make it seem like there is nothing odd about it. Creativity will happen, students are motivated and will excel. Hidden agendas will disappear. Play with Legos, build a robot, discover the fastest route for a marble run–there are endless toys now for creative building and design. Women of all ages must accept who they are and not feel unfeminine or not accepted if what they like to do is not typically “feminine.” Same for boys of course.

Count the women in this picture–very encouraging!  In the background, is the Mars Science Laboratory which is on its way to Mars and set to land on August 5, 2012. (The MSL was built at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and launched from Kennedy Space Center on November 26, 2011).

Jet Propulsion Laboratory employees who graduated from The University of Colorado. Photo Credit: University of Colorado

Tell me your story. Can we as parents, educators and mentors do more to foster young women in science, mathematics and engineering? Are we there yet?  Are we at least on the way?

Categories: 21st Century Education, creativity, Innovation, math, Mathematics eduction, motivation, self-esteem, social/emotional wellness, STEAM, STEM education, Uncategorized

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