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Uncharted Frontiers: Getting Girls (and Boys!) into STEM Careers

Earlier this week I stumbled upon a conversation on NPR about the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) career gap--specifically, the fact that men vastly outnumber women in virtually every one of the STEM majors in college, and go on to do so in the workforce. Though young women take science courses in numbers comparable to their male classmates throughout middle and high school, in college these numbers drop off; 19% of freshman women consider pursuing a STEM field, while 35% of freshman men do, and in majors like mechanical engineering, fewer than 10% of matriculating students are female. Why is this, when based on high school performance, women show themselves to be just as good at the STEM subjects? The prevailing theory is that women receive subtle discouragement from pursuing these stereotypically male subjects at the collegiate level, and ultimately feel that these subjects are irrelevant or uninteresting.

I often wonder to what extent my own skill and interest sets have been influenced in this manner. Today, I'm a liberal arts student through and through. Yet, I recall being interested in puzzles and technology when I was as young as six, and thinking that Boy Scouts got to do much cooler things than Girl Scouts because the boys got to build model cars for Pinewood Derby. In a synagogue youth group, I once attended a three-hour class on electronic security, at which every participant received an outdated motion detector to take home; I remember tinkering with the machine, fascinated, for days afterward. In school, I legitimately liked math. However, it never came naturally to me the way English and writing did. A middle school math teacher encouraged me not to take the honors track in math because she felt it would be "too stressful" for me. In retrospect, I am disappointed that I didn't fight her on this; my 7th grade placement held me back in a track that never got to calculus in high school.

Now, the math teacher was undoubtedly right about one thing--the honors track would have been stressful for me, just as chemistry and physics classes in which I enrolled and struggled caused me a great deal of anxiety in subsequent years. But I'm not sure that would have been a bad thing, and I do regret never developing any proficiency in calculus (since my college classes seemed to depend heavily on skills I'd never learned in high school, and I was kind of lost by that point.) I don't think, looking back, that if I'd been allowed to take advanced math as I wanted, I would have become a genius in some STEM subject. I would probably still be an English major at heart. However, I do think I was allowed to "accept defeat" in math too easily--that because it was hard for me, I was encouraged to take the path of least resistance, rather than work on the subject until I got better at it.

In the public school where I teach, the issue of gender gaps in STEM subjects is probably not given as much attention as it should be. One problem is that, in small schools like this one, it is hard to offer a broad array of courses due to the small staff and small number of students who will opt to take any specialized, non-required course. For example, the school cannot offer AP English Language and Composition in the same year as AP English Literature and Composition, because the overlap of students who would wish to take both courses, as well as the inability to fill both simultaneously--and with a shortage of available classrooms and staff members, offering a class in which only 10 kids enroll isn't a viable option. The same holds true for advanced science classes such as robotics, microbiology, and physics, which are not required for graduation from New York State public schools, despite their obvious value in a high school transcript, let alone their importance to kids who may wish to do STEM courses in college.

So, in that respect, I don't think our female students are receiving discouraging messages any more than the male students are--and on a larger scale, I don't think that the gender gap in STEM careers is exacerbated in inner-city schools, which is a question some might wonder about. In fact, there are several young women I teach who have already expressed interest in majoring in sciences (both wish to ultimately go to medical school--seemingly, biology is the only major that draws women in the same rates as men.) What I would like to see, however, is more awareness of STEM careers in general--as my brother, an engineer, points out, very few high school students have a clear idea about what the different branches of engineering are, or what most of them do in any practical way. Moreover, to the extent that efforts are being made in some schools to connect young women with adult women in STEM fields, similar mentoring programs for young people of color would be useful; these programs could include job shadowing, internships, and guidance for these students in applying to colleges that would be most conducive to supporting their respective STEM career paths.

As a non-science person, I would love to see my students--boys and girls--connecting more with STEM coursework and careers, not only because it might awaken the interest of some of our more lackadaisical scholars, but also so my own repressed inner-STEM-nerd could live vicariously through them...a little bit.

Lastly, a shameless plug: My book is coming out September 1, 2013. Like this blog, it focuses on issues in education; (mostly) unlike this blog, it contains mortifying tales of my early years in the profession. Thanks, folks. Have a great week.

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