Girls in math and science

By Murray Bourne, 08 Oct 2007

An article on MSNBC by LiveScience explodes some myths about the success (or otherwise) of girls when it comes to math and science.

Myth 1: From the time they start school, most girls are less interested in science than boys are.

The reality: [...] The persistence of the stereotypes start to turn girls off, and by eighth grade, boys are twice as interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) careers as girls are. [...]

Myth 2: Classroom interventions that work to increase girls' interest in STEM run the risk of turning off the boys.

Reality: Actually, educators have found that interventions that work to increase girls' interest in STEM also increase such interest among the boys in the classroom. [...]

Myth 3: Science and math teachers are no longer biased toward their male students.

Reality: In fact, biases are persistent, and teachers often interact more with boys than with girls in science and math. A teacher will often help a boy do an experiment by explaining how to do it, while when a girl asks for assistance the teacher will often simply do the experiment, leaving the girl to watch rather than do. [...]

Myth 4: When girls just aren't interested in science, parents can't do much to motivate them.

Reality: Parents' support (as well as that of teachers) has been shown to be crucial to a girl's interest in science, technology, engineering and math. [...]

Myth 5: At the college level, changing the STEM curriculum runs the risk of watering down important "sink or swim" coursework.

Reality: The mentality of needing to "weed out" weaker students in college majors - especially in the more quantitative disciplines - disproportionately weeds out women. This is not necessarily because women are failing. Rather, women often perceive "Bs" as inadequate grades and drop out, while men with "Cs" will persist with the class. [...]

"There are helpful strategies for teachers and for families to attract girls to science and keep them engaged in it," says Jolene Kay Jesse, GSE [Gender in Science and Engineering] program director. "And, by the way, these strategies are helpful in keeping students of both genders engaged."

The program seeks to broaden the participation of girls and women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education fields by supporting research, research-based innovations and education add-ons that will lead to a larger and more diverse domestic science and engineering workforce.

Myth 3, the one concerning teachers' attitudes to girls in science classes, has broader implications.

Unfortunately, many teachers just 'do the experiment' when asked a question (by a boy or girl), because the teacher just wants to get it finished in the allotted time. An important part of science education is letting students struggle and fail - and learn from it.

See the 3 Comments below.

3 Comments on “Girls in math and science”

  1. Li-sa says:

    Frankly, my teachers also literally tell us that he/she had to complete which-and-which chapter(s) before the end of each lesson.
    Two years ago, my science teacher sent an email to the whole F.2 (including me), saying that teachers can only *help* in our learning but we must learn by ourselves.
    Yet some of us are still cozy in our understanding. Do you know that if we don't learn every moment, in the near future, we will be weeded out? [An article on liberal studies; I forgot the exact source.]

  2. Murray says:

    Hi Li-sa and thanks for the comment.

    Isaac Asimov said "Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is."

    And there is truth in that - our teachers can't do the learning for us, they can only provide good conditions for it to occur.

  3. vlorbik says:

    calling it "reality" doesn't make it more real;
    this stuff is propaganda, not science (live or otherwise).
    embarrassingly stupid propaganda at that.

    girls (& women too, of course) *are* discriminated against
    and of course, like all people of good will, i'm in favor
    of trying to change this. so don't get me wrong.

    but look at "myth 5".
    the "reality", on this model,
    is that girls who don't make A's
    quit more readily than boys.
    if this is true, i suppose it's a problem.
    but blaming "the mentality of needing
    to 'weed out' " can hardly lead to any solution.
    on this model, we'd have to give up all thought
    of rating student performance at all.
    disguising such an attack on the whole teaching profession
    by soaking it in ostensibly feminist principles just makes it
    more contemptable.

    of course, the most telling passage is at the end,
    where "mathematics" has somehow morphed into
    "mathematics education" (and "research based"
    presumably has its usual meaning of "ed school party line").

    already too much attention paid to this;
    thanks for the space to vent.

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