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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Girls and Science: A Dream Deferred

This blog post is an excerpt from Save Our Science: How To Inspire a New Generation of Scientists by Ainissa Ramirez (TED Books).


The 21st century requires a new kind of learner -- not someone who can simply churn out answers by rote, but a student who can think expansively and solve problems resourcefully. As a scientist and inventor, a longtime professor at Yale University, and a woman who has always been passionate about getting kids excited about science, I believe that the key to this goal is to improve science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. These disciplines are rooted in the kind of thinking that is now critical. One of the most important aspects of this shift is to fix the false presumption that girls are not as good as boys in science and math.

Even though girls and boys sit next to each other in class, only 26 percent of STEM bachelor's degrees go to women. By allowing and encouraging society's message to girls that they are bad at these subjects, we're drastically reducing the number of our potential doctors, engineers, designers and computer scientists. Given the growing importance of STEM in the global economy, failing to nurture girls in these disciplines is dangerous for our country.

The data also shows that the difference among graduates is not due to girls' ability to do math and science; instead, the gender gap is caused by attitudes and behaviors toward girls and women, especially in the classroom. Recently, the American Association of University Women spelled out the STEM ecosystem for girls in its report titled Why So Few? The data shows that the input of girls and boys who are interested in math and science is nearly the same. So the problem has everything to do with the type of encouragement girls receive. To begin solving this problem, girls need additional encouragement to bypass the cracks in this STEM pipeline.

The fallacy that girls can't do math and science, which has morphed into an accepted belief, begins with the negative messages they receive every day. When I was younger, I loved Barbie dolls, but my love came to a halt more recently when Mattel released a talking Barbie doll that said, "Math class is tough." Just a few years ago, I saw a girl's T-shirt that said, "Allergic to Algebra." As much as we want to protect them, our girls see these stereotypes beginning in elementary school.

Worthwhile Pursuits for Girls

This was not always the case. In the post-colonial days of the United States, there was a strong intention to educate girls in science and math. In her 2003 book The Science Education of American Girls, historian Kim Tolley examines the evolution of girls' scientific interests from the antebellum era through the 20th century. Jedidiah Morse's Geography Made Easy, first printed in 1784, was the premier science textbook of the time and is dedicated "to the Young Masters and Misses." (Morse later founded a school for girls.) At the small all-girl secondary schools that began in New England in the early 1800s, girls studied geography, English, arithmetic, needlework and the arts. Geography contained topics such as astronomy, geology and history.

In the late 19th century, the physical sciences were considered a worthwhile pursuit for girls to undertake. In 1890, 58 percent of girls took physics and algebra. An array of school course catalogs shows that a greater percentage of all-girl high schools offered more physics and chemistry classes. After 1900, however, the number of girls in the sciences took a nosedive, as John Francis Latimer wrote in the 1958 book What's Happened to Our High Schools. By 1955, that number dropped to less than two percent.

The precipitous drop in girls' enrollment in STEM classes

Credit: J.F. Latimer, What’s Happened to Our High Schools

Several factors caused this decline. Secondary schools began to offer courses in classics to promote their status and to help prepare girls for college, since they were needed for admission. Unfortunately, this reduced the science offerings. In addition, schools started to emphasize vocational training like home economics, which put another nail in the coffin for girls' STEM access. Then, during World War II, the role of science changed as it began to be associated with making weapons and going into to battle. These cultural mindsets pushed girls away from science.

The Next Challenge

Today, we are slowly recovering from this decimation of girls in the sciences. Still, it is important to examine the messaging that rides alongside our efforts to rebuild. In the discussion of different learning styles between boys and girls, we must recognize that girls' choices might be linked to this old legacy of prejudice. (It is something to consider.) The reality is that girls can do science and math just as well as boys. In fact, the gender ability gap is now narrowing in the U.S.; and in Great Britain, girls have outperformed boys in "male" topics like math and economics. The relationship between girls and science has never been a question about their skill, but more a reflection of how society views them.

So, we are at a crossroads and must make a change. We need fun and engaging STEM everywhere, like 3D printers at coffeehouses. We need science role models to inspire the next generation. And, most importantly, we need STEM programs outside of school to motivate and encourage the next generation until we right this STEM boat again. We can do it; we've done it before with Sputnik. To make this change possible, all hands on deck are needed to save our science.

Comments (5)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia
Staff

Great post, Ainissa. I wanted to add some Girls in STEM resources for anyone who might be interested:

Girls In STEM Conference, April 6, 2013, Austin, TX:
http://www.girlstart.org/our-programs/girls-in-stem-conference

National Girls Collaborative Project has a directory with a number of Girls in STEM programs as well.
http://www.ngcproject.org/programs

If anyone has any experience with these or any other Girls in STEM programs, please add a note here!

(Why does a google search for "Maker Girls" yield a bunch of sites about makeovers?! Grr!)

Alexa's picture

This is such a great article!

I as a former high school student was very involved in science, participating in the state science fair and very interested in the world of science. I was not the best student instead science was my worst subject.

Now six years later, after soul seaching long and hard I have decided to pursue a career in Science education. I have had many role models in the science field including my grandfather and father. My goal is to help students have fun in science. Having fun to understand what is important. I stress that the more engaged I can get the students and the more involvement and fun they have the more they are willing to participate and understand important material.

Do you have any suggestions on things I can do to improve my future classroom? Projects? Different ideas on testing?

KJ's picture

Ms. Ramirez, I really enjoyed reading your article. It is spot on and resonates with me. I have a huge passion for science and am a 5th grade teachers on a team of teachers that rarely crack open their science kits for the year. Out of all the subjects, I find science the easiest (and most fun!) to make engaging since it centers around projects, labs, and demos and involves a lot of hands-on activities and group activities. I also find it quite reasonable to pull in other subjects of learning into my science lesson (especially math and language arts). Before becoming a teacher, it was hard for me to understand why the big gender gap between male and female re: STEM interests and pursuits. But then when I became a teacher, I heard voices around me re-telling the myth that math and science are just harder for females. These voices were from other teachers, students' parents, and sadly, the students themselves. Although society has greatly changed, do you think that part of the reason behind these voices is that women are typically viewed as the ones to stay home and raise a family so they shouldn't "waste" their time and money with a STEM-associated career? Or, do you think it is simply a lame excuse for females to not have to try as hard in STEM subjects? These attitudes and behaviors, especially in my own school, greatly sadden me and make me want to all the more encourage my students- regardless of their gender, learning ability, personality, background, or preconceived notions- to jump into the world of science and experience how fascinating and addictive it is!

Kate Ross's picture

in our university around 17% of girls apply to do physics at undergraduate level, followed by a more substantial decline in the numbers moving into permanent academic jobs - only 7.9% of these undergraduates stay on to become senior lecturers and 4% professors.

Nefertitti Washington's picture

Thank you for such a timely article! I am a teacher of middle school math where my love for math is definitely not the love the mainstream population has. In the article, Female teachers' math anxiety affects girls' math achievement, the authors state that It is definitely perpetuated by people's fear and anxiety about doing math--over and above actual math ability--can be an impediment to their math achievement (Beilock et al, 2009). This fear often comes from the influence of both parents and teachers especially at an early age. But teachers who in early education who are uncomfortable with math as well as teaching it communicate this discomfort affecting achievement. I agree that we are in need of all hands to create a change in dynamics of girls incorporating and becoming more mathematical and science oriented. Through programs such as Expanding your Horizons, we must provide opportunities for girls to see the advantages while using the applications of math and science.

References
Beilock, S. L., Gunderson, E. A., Ramirez, G., & Levine, S. C. (2009). Female teachers' math anxiety impacts girls' math achievement. PNAS, 107(5), 1860-1863.Retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/content/107/5/1860.full.pdf+html

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