Bridging the STEM gender gap

TLN Forum member Laura Reasoner Jones has an excellent feature article in the Summer 2008 issue of Threshold magazine, titled “The ‘Ick’ Factor: Do Gender or Ethnicity Drive STEM Choices?”

Threshold, published by Cable in the Classroom, devotes each quarterly issue to a particular theme. This time it’s “Bridging the Gap.” The articles focus on the challenges and potentialities of “attracting women and minorities to careers in science, math, technology, and engineering.”

Laura’s article draws in part on her current assignment as a technology teacher based in a Title I elementary school in Virginia. But she’s also able to tap into her many years of experience as the leader of a GEMS (girls excelling in math & science) Club. She also led a community-oriented digital equity project in her district and served as a teacher in residence at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, where she helped develop the NBPTS Digital Edge Learning Interchange (DELI) with Apple Computer.

As the article’s teaser says, Laura contends that “the academic choices being made by girls and minorities show that schools need to do more to promote STEM careers and learning opportunities.” She writes:

Women and minorities must be part of the STEM workplace. I like to think there must have been a female automotive engineer on the design team who had the brilliant idea of sliding doors with remote-control openers on both sides of minivans. (Only a mother with young children and groceries could have thought of that.) As Jo Sanders writes in her paper, “Lessons I’ve Learned in 22 Years of Working with Teachers About Girls in IT,” there is a difference between using technology and creating it for the rest of us to use. And educators do not seem to make this distinction….

After “some loosening” of gender strictures in the 1970s and 1980s, when baby boomers “tried to raise our children in less gender-biased environments” and more young women began to enter career fields that “never crossed our radar screens,” Laura has seen a regression.

Younger teachers and parents feel that gender equity was resolved in the previous decades, and there are no longer any problems. As a result, society seems to have swung back to a pink and blue division. Toy stores label aisles for boys and girls; new toys come out in pink or blue (or pink and camouflage); and advertising and marketing target specific audiences. Stand at any elementary-school bus stop and watch girls with their hot pink Bratz or Disney Princess backpacks and boys carrying camouflage or sports heroes. Even McDonalds gives away two different sets of toys in its children’s meals.The world has quietly divided again, and it continues to show in the academic choices girls make.

What does this mean for STEM  literacy in schools? When girls or underserved minorities come to school with less experience in building toys or tinkering, they participate less enthusiastically in certain school experiences. A cycle begins in which girls or minorities are relegated to acting as note takers in projects, or being considered as less desirable partners. This group experiences less competence with the raw materials, making the next exposure even more intimidating. Students with lower levels of experience in STEM fields may take fewer risks in class or individual science projects due to fear of failure or just general unease and unfamiliarity with the materials.

Research has shown that what students believe about their academic abilities affects their achievement. When girls or minorities struggle initially with a math or science concept, a belief that intelligence is a fixed trait can only harm them, and can lead to lower self-expectations.

Smart thinking from an accomplished teacher who spent many years working in homes with developmentally delayed Pre-K children in her school system, then earned a master’s degree in library-media science and interned in an alternative high school. She’s got the big perspective.

Laura wrote about immigrant students in her school in another recent article, this one for Teacher Magazine.