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Monday, November 29, 2010

Helping Girls Succeed in Math and Science

As a mother of two bright young girls and a woman in a technical field, I have thought a lot about ways to encourage girls in math and science, and to avoid the traps that lead to the gender gap that still exists today. I strongly believe (and research suggests) that family support is a positive factor, and that making science and math fun and relevant goes a long way toward fostering interest.

I have heard some colleagues suggest that girls are simply less analytical or less interested in science than their male counterparts. Studies suggest that - at least initially - this simply isn't true. A recent study found that boys and girls were equally interested in science in the fourth grade, but by the eighth grade boys were twice as likely as girls to still be interested in science. I was shocked by the drastic shift - something (more likely many things) is definitely causing the steep decline in female interest. With the obvious barriers of entry a thing of the past, it is difficult to identify the causes. Some suggest that a lack of support at home, a lack of female role models, and a difficulty relating to common examples used in the science classroom (such as a car engine) may be at work.

The Department of Education released a practice guide for teachers in 2007, aimed at assisting educators in encouraging girls in math and science. The guide was developed by a panel of experts who were tasked with providing evidence based recommendations, and here are the five recommendations they came up with:

  1. Teach students that academic abilities are expandable and improvable
  2. Provide prescriptive, informal feedback
  3. Expose girls to female role models who have succeeded in math and science
  4. Create a classroom environment that sparks initial curiosity and fosters long term interest in math and science
  5. Provide spatial skills training
In other words, we need to reinforce the idea that girls are capable and can thrive in technical pursuits AND maintain their interest while teaching math and science.

Parents can implement these recommendations as well, and today I want to focus on numbers 3 and 4. I will follow up with information on the remaining recommendations in another post.

3: Expose girls to female role models who have succeeded in math and science

There is a significant lack of female role models in the science classroom. Why the emphasis on classroom? The book Failing at Fairness highlighted that even as recently as 1994 women were significantly underrepresented in textbooks. With a little research, I found there have been an abundance of female role models in math and science throughout history, but few of them make it into science and math textbooks. The National Science Foundation and the Department of Education both think this has an impact on girls' attitudes toward science, and that increasing exposure to female (and minority) role models can encourage everyone in the classroom: "When girls are shown images of women scientists and given a greater sense of possibility about the person they could become, the boys get the message too - I can do this!"

Some studies have shown that girls tend to be more critical of their skills, and/or more easily discouraged by a failure or perceived failure. Providing role models and examples of women who have succeeded throughout history can help reinforce self confidence and invalidate the stereotype that men are better at math and science than women.

Where can a parent go to get information on women in science throughout history? Here are a few resources that can help.

Women's Adventures in Science

Historical Women in Science

Great Science for Girls - role models

4: Create a classroom environment that sparks initial curiosity and fosters long term interest in math and science

This goes back to what I said earlier about keeping learning fun and relevant. Engaging activities - those that girls can easily relate to and that don't reinforce stereotypes (back to the car engine) can increase the interest of all students and help everyone succeed. By encouraging your child's natural curiosity, relating her interests to science or math, discussing current events as they relate to science and math, and encouraging your child to ask questions and seek out answers, you are fostering your child's interest in learning and building her self confidence.

Here are some links that can help you get started:

Science News for Kids

Mad Science

Resources for Families Taking Action

Exploring Science Resources

If you didn't find what you were looking for, don't be afraid to simply Google a particular subject of interest -investigating with your child reinforces the idea that research doesn't have to be a daunting task, and provides an opportunity to discuss appropriate resources.

What do you think - is there still a gender gap in technical fields? Is it inherent, or is there something else at work? I'd love to hear whether you were encouraged in math and science, and see any links that can help encourage all students in technical pursuits!

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Anonymous said...

I am also a woman in a technical field and have been involved in outreach projects to local schools to get girls interested in math and science. I think it's a great cause, and this was a great article.

Looking back, the biggest thing that affected me was that the boys would often ridicule me. In 6th grade, I signed up for a robotic lego club and as soon as I walked in the room they made fun of me and gave me directions to home ec. And the teacher said "are you sure this is where you want to be?" So I left and picked a different activity. Luckily it didn't keep me out of a technical field, and I never experienced anything like that since, but the middle school years are when many girls turn away. I think female role models are needed not so much for the girls but for the boys so that they realize that everyone can do that stuff.

BusyMom said...

I have a technical degree, but also pursued an advanced business degree and have moved over to the business side of life with a role that ties the business to the technical and the technical to the business. I like this role, allowing me to keep a pulse on the technical side, while expanding my horizon.

I had a female math teacher in grades 4,5 and 6 and a female science teacher the same years. I think after that, all of my teachers were males. The one that encouraged me to pursue my degree was my Chemistry teacher in high school (not anything he said, but he gave me a love of Chemistry). He was from Australia and a hoot!

I agree that female role models can be a big boost to interest and success in a science and math field.

Interesting post. My daughter is young, but I still encourage her that she can do anything that my son does. If hope that helps keep any potential barriers down in her mind.