Reducing gender differences in STEM education

21 Apr

Many girls and women who have the math and science aptitude for a science career don’t enter scientific fields. Cheryl B. Schrader writes in the St Louis Post-Dispatch article, STEM education: Where the girls are not:

Compounding this issue, the gender gap in these fields is widening.

The Jan. 30 report from STEMconnector and My College Options — titled “Where Are the STEM Students?” — underscores the importance of these fields for our nation’s future economic well-being. It also presents a challenge for all of us in education, from kindergarten through college, to increase interest levels in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the so-called STEM fields — for all types of students.

While the majority of U.S. college students today are female, they remain a minority in many science and engineering fields. If universities are to meet the future demands of our economy, we can’t leave half of the college-bound population on the sidelines.

How can we change that? The STEMconnector report offers some hints.

Female high school students who are interested in these fields often gravitate toward biology, chemistry, marine biology and science — areas often associated with a desire to make the world a better place. Women tend to be drawn to these service-oriented professions.

But thanks to the rise of cloud computing, information systems and the app economy, 71 percent of the new STEM jobs in 2018 are projected to be in the computing fields. Getting girls interested in these fields at a young age will be critical if we are to meet the coming demand for talented and well-educated computer scientists, computer engineers and game designers.

With this in mind, it’s important to convey to young women computing’s role in serving society. We should show a young woman how a computer science degree could equip her to design a new app to diagnose illness. That may appeal more to her desire to help others than, say, showing her how to write code for yet another online game.

Programs like Project Lead the Way, which introduces middle school and high school students to engineering and science, help students learn more about these fields at an early age. In Missouri, 165 high schools and middle schools are using PLTW’s engineering and biomedical sciences materials to generate more interest in those areas.

See, STEM Connector

Jonathan Olsen and Sarah Gross, teachers at High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey guest post in the Scientific American article, To Attract More Girls to STEM, Bring More Storytelling to Science:

Perhaps girls with high verbal scores choose careers other than STEM because their passion hasn’t been kindled in those classes. We know it is not the fault of their teachers but a problem of process.  For many schools, arts and sciences are rarely ever integrated.  Teachers are kept apart with little time to collaborate.

If integration does happen, it is usually the humanities teacher looking to include aspects of STEM in their courses.  The recent adoption of the Common Core Standards by forty-five states calls for more integration between subjects.  However, ask most humanities teachers and they will tell you that they are being told to integrate STEM content into their classes, removing literature for nonfiction, rather than being given the opportunity to collaborate with their STEM counterparts.  Integration is wonderfully effective and certainly the future of education but it is a two-way street.  We think schools should use reciprocal integration between the arts and sciences to capture the imagination of these top female students.

How many engineering teachers include a fiction book like Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano in their syllabi?  Do many math teachers analyze the intricacies of M. C. Escher’s artwork with their students or read Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo? How many science teachers read aloud the poetic observations of Dr. David George Haskell?  Do many biology teachers share the story of the HeLa cells?  We think ideas like these should be a part of all STEM curricula.  And experts agree. The NextGeneration Science Standards, released for public discussion last week, ask teachers to show students how insights from many disciplines fit together into a coherent picture of the world.  And we believe that incorporating more storytelling into science can help do this.

Research has shown that storytelling activates the brain beyond mere word recognition.  In 2006, researchers in Spain discovered that stories stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life. Last year, a team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that similes and metaphors can activate sensory portions of the brain, and the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France discovered that action words can stimulate the motor cortex.  So if, as the recent study in Psychological Science shows, female students with high ability in both math and verbal areas tend to steer away from STEM careers, maybe it’s time to bring more of those verbal skills into the STEM classes for the benefit of these students.

Here is the press release from the University of Pittsburgh:

March 19, 2013

Women With Both High Math and Verbal Ability Appear Less Likely to Choose Science Careers Because Their Dual Skills Confer More Career Options

Pitt-Michigan study finds that more women than men have combination of high math and high verbal skills, recommends new focus on tapping potential of women with that combination for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)

Study also finds that women with high math skills and only moderate verbal ability are the ones who appear more likely to choose STEM careers

PITTSBURGH—There has been ongoing public discussion about the need to educate and recruit more young Americans for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Now a just-published study by the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan offers one potential solution to this perennial problem: more concentrated efforts to encourage women who already possess the necessary skills. 

It turns out that there is a pre-existing pool of women with both high math and high verbal ability; it’s just that they seem to be more likely to choose careers outside of science because their combination of skills provides them with more career options, according to the Pitt study, published March 19 in Psychological Science. 

Principal Investigator and Pitt Assistant Professor of Psychology in Education Ming-Te Wang and collaborators at the University of Michigan found that the mean SAT math score of a group of men and women with the combination of high math and high verbal scores was 720, while the mean SAT verbal score was 696, both out of a possible 800. This group of math and verbal high achievers included a significantly higher proportion of women (63 percent) than men (37 percent).

Additionally, the researchers found that women in the group of men and women with high math scores and only moderate verbal scores were the ones more likely to choose STEM careers. The mean math SAT score for this group was 721, while the mean verbal SAT score was 655. 

Our study suggests that it’s not lack of ability or difference in ability that orients females to pursue non-STEM careers but the fact that they can consider a wider range of occupations because of their combination of excellent math and verbal skills,” said Wang. “This highlights the need for educators and policy makers to shift the focus away from trying to strengthen girls’ STEM-related abilities and instead tap the potential of these girls who are highly skilled in both the math and verbal domains to go into STEM fields.”

Wang and his collaborators examined data on 1,490 college-bound U.S. students, with the information drawn from the University of Michigan’s Longitudinal Study of American Youth. The subjects in the Michigan Longitudinal Study were surveyed by Michigan in two waves: once in the 12th grade (1992) and again at age 33 (2007). The subjects completed telephone interviews, which required them to update their educational and occupational histories from high school through the time of the second-wave survey. Only subjects who participated in both waves were included in Wang’s study; all had received a four-year college degree by the time of the second-wave survey. The participants were 49 percent female and 51 percent male.  

The survey evaluated such factors as participants’ SAT scores, family needs, whether they liked working with people or things, their devotion to a career, and, ultimately, the occupations they chose by age 33. 

The researchers found, from their analysis of the Michigan Longitudinal Study data, that men and women who felt more successful in mathematics than in verbal-related disciplines were more likely to work in STEM fields by the time they had reached the age of 33. Mathematics, said Wang, played a role in these individuals’ identities because they excelled within the discipline, driving them to pursue STEM-related jobs. 

We need to make sure girls and women—especially those with the combination of high math and high verbal skills—are well informed regarding the full diversity of options available in STEM careers,” said Wang. “We want them to see the value in these disciplines so they won’t shy away from science- or math-related careers because of lack of information, misinformation, or stereotypes.”

Wang’s coauthors include the University of Michigan’s Jacquelynne Eccles and Sarah Kenny. 

The paper is titled “Not Lack of Ability but More Choice: Individual and Gender Differences in Choice of Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.” 

A PDF of the study is available upon request. 



In Study: Elementary school teachers have an impact on girls math learning moi wrote:

Moi has written about the importance of motivation in student learning. In Research papers: Student Motivation: An Overlooked Piece of School Reform, moi wrote:

Moi often says education is a partnership between the student, the teacher(s) and parent(s). All parties in the partnership must share the load. The student has to arrive at school ready to learn. The parent has to set boundaries, encourage, and provide support. Teachers must be knowledgeable in their subject area and proficient in transmitting that knowledge to students. All must participate and fulfill their role in the education process. A series of papers about student motivation by the Center on Education Policy (CEP) follows the Council on Foreign Relations report by Condoleezza Rice and Joel Klein.                                                                            


Girls and math phobia                                                             

Study: Gender behavior differences lead to higher grades for girls                                                                        

University of Missouri study: Counting ability predicts future math ability of preschoolers                                                       

Is an individualized program more effective in math learning?

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