Getting Girls Involved in STEM Education

Stephen DeAngelis

August 29, 2014

Boys are better at math than girls. Everybody knows that. Right? I always debunked that notion as a myth; but, an article from the staff of Livescience suggests there might be a kernel of truth in that notion; but, for a reason you might not suspect. “From an early age,” the article asserts, “boys tend to take a more impulsive approach to math problems in the classroom, which might help them get ahead of girls in the long-run, suggests the latest study to touch on the gender gap in math. The research claims girls may tend to favor a slow and accurate approach — often computing an answer by counting — while boys may take a faster, but more error-prone tack, calling out an answer from memory. The difference in strategies seems to benefit girls early in elementary school but swings in favor of boys by middle school.” [“Girls’ Math Skills May Fall Short Of Boys’ Because Of Male Impulsiveness,” Huffington Post, 30 July 2012] The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Missouri, who “followed 300 students from first grade to sixth grade. During those first two years, the boys called out more answers in class than the girls but also had more wrong answers. Girls were more often right, but answered fewer questions and responded more slowly, according to the university. By sixth grade, the boys were still answering more problems than the girls and were also getting more correct.”

Is there something in our genes that makes math easier for boys than girls? Not according to Jeanna Bryner (@jeannabryner), Managing Editor of Livescience, who insists, “Gender differences in math performance have more to do with culture than aptitude.” [“Girls Get Math: It’s Culture That’s Skewed,” Livescience, 1 June 2009] She reports that a “review of relevant studies” supports that conclusion. She goes on to note, “Such findings challenge the century-old idea that males are innately more capable than girls in mathematics.” A more recent study conducted by scientists at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) agrees. The study concludes, “If you want to be really good at all types of math, you need to practice them all. You can’t trust your innate natural talent to do most of the job for you. This might seem obvious to some, but it goes against the traditional view that if you are good at math, it is a skill that you simply born with.” [“No math gene: Learning mathematics takes practice,” Phys.org, 13 December 2013] Carol S. Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, asks, “Why aren’t more of our brightest females pursuing careers in math and science?” [“Is Math a Gift? Beliefs That Put Females at Risk,” in S.J. Ceci & W. Williams (Eds.), Why aren’t more women in science? Top researchers debate the evidence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association (2006)] That is an excellent question. Her research led her to conclude that gender differences in math skills had a lot to do with perceptions. She explains:

“We see that by the end of 8th grade, there is a considerable gap between females and males in their math grades — but only for those students who believed that intellectual skills are a gift. When we look at students who believed that intellectual ability could be expanded, the gap is almost gone. … We began to think, females who believe in gifts might not only be more susceptible to setbacks, they should also be more susceptible to stereotypes. After all, stereotypes are stories about gifts — about who has them and who doesn’t. So if you believe in a math gift and your environment tells you that your group doesn’t have it, then that can be disheartening. But if, instead, you believe that math ability can be cultivated through your efforts, then the stereotype is less credible. It also seems more like something that can be overcome. … It looks, then, as though the view of math as a gift can not only make women vulnerable to declining performance, it can also make them susceptible to stereotypes, so that when they enter an environment that denigrates their gift, they may lose the desire to carry on in that field.”

That’s what makes studies like those conducted at NTNU so important. Both boys and girls (but especially girls) need to understand that math (like related STEM subjects) is a skill that can be learned through practice and perseverance. Dweck concludes, “Covering females with praise for their level of ability is not the answer. Rather than instill lasting confidence, it does just the opposite. So what would work? The answer, we found, is to get at the root of the vulnerable confidence by addressing students’ beliefs about the nature of ability.” Boys really have nothing to crow about. Alice Park (@aliceparkny) notes, “Girls have been getting better grades than boys in school for 100 years — even in math and science classes.” [“Girls Beat Boys in Every Subject, and They Have for a Century,” Time, 29 April 2014] The point is there is nothing inherent in gender that should keep girls from pursuing STEM subjects and careers. The Institute of Education Sciences offers five recommendations for teachers to use that can encourage girls in math and science. [“Encouraging Girls in Math and Science“] The recommendations are accompanied by a downloadable practice guide. The recommendations are:

  • Teachers should explicitly teach students that academic abilities are expandable and improvable in order to enhance girls’ beliefs about their abilities. Students who view their cognitive abilities as fixed from birth or unchangeable are more likely to experience decreased confidence and performance when faced with difficulties or setbacks. Students who are more confident about their abilities in math and science are more likely to choose elective math and science courses in high school and more likely to select math and science-related college majors and careers.
  • Teachers should provide students with prescriptive, informational feedback regarding their performance. Prescriptive, informational feedback focuses on strategies, effort, and the process of learning (e.g., identifying gains in children’s use of particular strategies or specific errors in problem solving). Such feedback enhances students’ beliefs about their abilities, typically improves persistence, and improves performance on tasks.
  • Teachers should expose girls to female role models who have achieved in math or science in order to promote positive beliefs regarding women’s abilities in math and science. Even in elementary school, girls are aware of the stereotype that men are better in math and science than women are. Exposing girls to female role models (e.g., through biographies, guest speakers, or tutoring by older female students) can invalidate these stereotypes.
  • Teachers can foster girls’ long-term interest in math and science by choosing activities connecting math and science activities to careers in ways that do not reinforce existing gender stereotypes and choosing activities that spark initial curiosity about math and science content. Teachers can provide ongoing access to resources for students who continue to express interest in a topic after the class has moved on to other areas.
  • Teachers should provide opportunities for students to engage in spatial skills training. Spatial skills training is associated with performance in mathematics and science.

Laura Devaney (@eSN_Laura), Managing Editor of eSchool News, writes, “Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs are growing each day, expanding to reach students of all ages as they educate tomorrow’s leaders. While education stakeholders and policymakers advocate for more access to these valuable STEM programs, and while programs are plentiful, access isn’t always equal. Efforts are underway to ensure that women and minorities have equal access and opportunity when it comes to K-12 STEM education and program participation.” [“6 STEM resources to engage women, minorities,” eSchool News, 6 August 2014] As her headline states, Devaney provides six examples of available STEM resources for women and minorities. Those resources are important because it’s a well-known fact that women and minorities are underrepresented in STEM fields. That won’t change if we don’t reach them at an early age and convince them that they are as well-equipped to succeed in STEM subjects as any other student. Since most good paying future jobs are going to require STEM skills, we can’t afford to allow over 50 percent of the potential workforce to steer away from those fields.