Do Girls Hate STEM Classes?
posted by: Larisa | August 10, 2012, 05:00 AM   

I’ll admit it: as a student, I loathed math and science.  In fact, one of the determining factors in selecting my college major was how little math and science was required to get my degree.  I also figured that I had enough trouble solving my own problems as a college freshman without having to solve x’s problems, too.  Besides, as an aspiring professional violinist, I was engrossed in practicing music, oblivious to the fact that math, science, and music significantly overlap.  In my sage adulthood, I now realize that I didn’t hate math and science – I just hated how it was taught to me.

It seems that many other women felt the same way about math and science when they decided their career paths, too.  Recently, some shocking statistics have been released about women in math and science fields.  For example, in a room of 25 engineers, only three of them will be women.  Even though women make up half of all jobs, only 25% of STEM-related jobs are filled by women.  Moreover, there are indications that graduating with a STEM degree does not guarantee that a woman will work in a STEM job.

So what does this mean for the high school math and science teacher or even the 6th grade classroom teacher?

In part this data means that we are marketing to young girls in the wrong ways.  It is one thing to target instruction towards girls, but, according to this post, it’s another thing to suck them in by playing to gender stereotypes, like in these science kits for girls.  Kids are kids and science is science, so a good solution for helping boys and girls alike learn math and science is to show kids that they are young scientists.

It also means that we might not be accounting for the fact that boys are more impulsive than girls when it comes to solving math problems in class.  I read this article and felt validated about being so quiet in my math classes as a kid.  Supposedly, research suggests that girls are more calculating than boys in their approach to math, thereby causing girls to take more time in answering a problem.  According to University of Missouri researcher Drew Bailey, “In our study, we found that boys were more likely to call out answers than girls, even though they were less accurate early in school.”  As time goes on, however, boy students increase in accuracy and ultimately surpass girls in math performance.

On the other hand, however, there’s a good argument that math performance is more related to culture than aptitude.  Professor Janet Hyde reports that even though American girls demonstrate skill in math, “[t]here’s a gender stereotype that boys are betters at math than girls are, and stereotypes die very hard.  Teachers and parents still believe that boys are better at math than girls are.”  Classroom dynamics, particularly teacher bias, are also influential in math performance amongst girls (or literary performance amongst boys).  For example, a recent survey demonstrated that high school math teachers tend to rate the math abilities of girls lower than the math abilities of boys even though test scores between boys and girls are comparable.

Teachers can certainly combat these problems in their classrooms by encouraging parents to involve their children with math and science from an early age.  The earlier students can be exposed  to math and science problems, the more comfortable students will likely be in the classroom.  Building up confidence from an early age is instrumental in reducing the onset of anxiety later on in life.

Teachers can also help students by being honest with their students.  One teacher commented, “The strategy I use is honesty.  I am … deathly afraid of math.  However, I have to get over it because I teach math to 4th graders!  So, when I see the kids getting uptight, I'm honest with them, ‘I know how you feel.  Math scares me, too. Let's go through this together.’  Sometimes we take breaks, too.  It helps to get a drink and shake off the worries.”  Teachers like this help girls realize that they don’t really hate STEM courses and that they can actually excel at STEM coursework.

Teachers, do girls hate STEM classes?  What do you do to help your girl students excel in STEM classes?
Comment below.

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