This editorial appeared in the For Your Consideration section in our April 25th e-Newsletter. For Your Consideration* provides an open forum for individuals to voice their opinions on various public education issues.
The pressure is on secondary education teachers to encourage young women to pursue science, math, and engineering degrees in college. Even if they’re just doing distance learning programs, a PhD program online that focused on science is better than having them ignore the subject altogether. While girls have made substantial gains as far as educational equity in many areas of education, studies show that they still lag behind their male counterparts when it comes to science and math.
Case studies have revealed some interesting new facts regarding some of the reasons why young women are still not pursuing those three degrees. The studies show that girls are largely influenced and affected by societal expectations, peer pressure, and environmental circumstances. It appears that they are learning at a very young age to dislike math and science. By middle school, young girls have already developed the ‘math is boring’ attitude, and believe that only boys are supposed to excel in math and science.
Actress and mathematician Danica McKellar, known for her role in the 80s as Winnie Cooper in The Wonder Years, believes that girls are getting messages everywhere as far as their roles and expectations in society. “I think that it is coming from all over,” explains McKellar. “Girls are inundated with images of what women are supposed to be, from billboards, magazines and pop culture in general – that girls are supposed to be sexy and appealing, and maybe even a little dumb, and that this is considered attractive. That’s the message that they’re getting. Boys don’t get that message. Boys tend to be more encouraged at a young age to talk about things like what they are going to do when they grow up. Girls tend to be complimented on their appearance. I think it starts very early.”
A study conducted by Sian L. Beilock, associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, puts some of the blame on female math teachers. Beilock says that girls learn to fear math, of all places, in the classroom. This happens when female math teachers, who are anxious about math or their own teaching abilities, subconsciously pass on this anxiety to their female students. Other studies show that too often boys and girls are not given the same opportunities in the classrooms. Boys are often presented with more challenging, problem-solving activities whereas teachers give the girls less-challenging and more fun type of activities.
Other surprising studies show that girls sometimes acquire their math phobia right in the home from their parents. Unlike English or social studies homework, mothers are less likely to want to help with math or science assignments. They often encourage their daughters to seek help from their fathers. Unfortunately, according to some case studies, their fathers will often display a different and more supportive role when helping their sons with math or science, but are less supportive and positive when helping their daughters.
These are just some of the obstacles that educators face and need to conquer in order to help young women realize their potential in the math, science, and engineering fields. Fortunately many school districts are already developing unique and creative ways to help young women in middle school and in high school overcome the “I hate math and science” syndrome.
Some schools have developed some gender segregated math classes. Studies show that this type of learning environment especially benefits girls who learn better because they do not have to ‘appear dumb’ in front of the boys, and they are willing to take the subject matter more seriously and ask questions. In some of these same schools, science teachers are including more collaborative learning in their lesson plans as well as more hands-on experiences inside and outside of the classroom.
School districts are providing teachers with more training and workshops on how to be sensitive to gender differences specifically when teaching science and math. This training often includes how to help students overcome peer pressure regarding preconceived notions about math and science and ways to inspire girls from K-12 to pursue degrees and careers in math, science, and engineering.
Other school districts are trying to change attitudes and confidence levels in girls by exposing them to female role models who have accomplished great feats in math or science. They invite guest speakers, read biographies, or recruit older female tutors who excel in math or science to help girls before or after school. Many schools have separate math or science clubs for boys and for girls that supplement classroom activities and experiences.
Technology provides teachers with great opportunities to ignite girls’ interest in math and science. Teachers are exposing young girls, at the elementary and middle school levels, to interesting and challenging Internet activities to stimulate a keen natural curiosity about numbers and nature. High school science and math teachers are motivating young women with math and science software that is challenging but encourages them to pursue an interest in the science or math fields.
Teachers know they are the key components in making a difference in the lives of female students. They are choosing science and math activities that connect young women to careers that do not reinforce the existing gender stereotypes and that ignite a natural curiosity about math and science. They are constantly finding new ways to change young women’s attitudes about math and science along with building their confidence and self-esteem.
*Please note the views expressed in For Your Consideration are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of MeckEd.
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