By Teachers, For Teachers
How can we encourage teen girls to stick with math and science?
Studies have shown for years that up until the age of about twelve, girls are at least as likely as boys to show interest in Math and Science courses. They show equal or superior skill in these areas and, when asked, will announce their desire to pursue careers in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. By all accounts, more than half of the scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and techies in this country should be female.
But at the magic (tragic?) age of 12, a transformation occurs. Researchers who study this phenomenon call it “The Wall”, and equate it with the “glass ceiling” that can keep women from reaching the same level as men in many corporations to this day.
The cause appears to be social: girls are under enormous peer pressure to fit stereotypes that appear to not include strengths in STEM areas. Girls who continue to demonstrate an inclination toward science or math are labeled negatively (think dorks/geeks/nerds) and become isolated and often discouraged.
We understand the nature of this problem fairly well, but we are still largely unsuccessful in our attempts to stop it. It has become clear that any effective method will rely on a combination of positive role models, opportunities to be challenged, and getting middle school teachers on board. This leads us to several strategies that show promise for breaking down the barriers for pre-teenage girls.
These are out-of-school educational “adventures” that focus on bringing together girls who have demonstrated strong potential in the STEM areas, and giving them guided opportunities to be challenged and supported. One of the most successful is the Girls And Science Camp organized by the Vanderbilt Center for Science Outreach. It represents a model that other universities have emulated.
Girls are recommended for these programs by their teachers and families if they excel in math and science, and are paired up with female scientists and engineers who provide counseling and guidance. The adults are prescreened to select those with powerful personal stories and strong communication skills. Girls meet regularly with their mentors for up to two years, including monthly or quarterly field trips and science lab visits. The North Carolina Women and Mathematics Network is an active and successful example.
Several organizations, including the Girl Scouts’ “Girls Go Tech” Program and “BrainCake” from the Carnegie Science Center, distribute class lessons that can be used by teachers to reach out to the female students in their middle school classrooms, encouraging their participation. Effort is taken to undermine the social norms that can negatively affect these young women. Teachers share stories of successful women who have “bucked the trend” to excel in STEM fields.
It is clear that more efforts need to be focused on “tween” girls during this important time in their lives, if we wish to increase the number of female professionals in engineering and science careers. Our sisters and daughters deserve to have more choices and more support.
How do you encourage students to explore subjects outside the cultural norm? Share your strategies in the comments section!