Honoring the Ingenuity of Girls

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Why so few women major in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in college, or choose STEM careers, is a question of much debate. Some people still believe that women innately are not as good as men in math and science. Others believe that women just prefer humanities and the arts. Neither explanation is true.

I had the privilege recently of reviewing finalist entries in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow 2015 Education Contest, which invited teachers and students to use STEM to solve challenges in their local communities. Over the course of the contest, teams submitted videos and Samsung awarded more than $2 million in learning technology products to winning teachers for use in their classrooms. Digital Promise partnered with Samsung to give a special award in the category of Civic Engagement. The video we selected as the award winner was announced today.

I am proud to say it showed the work of an all-girl team of 6th graders from the Frankie Woods McCullough Academy for Girls in Gary, Indiana.

In the video, the students tell a powerful story about an overlooked but important topic in America: the prevalence of “food deserts:” urban and low-income communities where it is difficult to buy affordable or high-quality fresh food. As part of the challenge, the girls learned the science of growing fruits and vegetables with the help of local community gardeners. To test their agricultural know-how, the girls built a mini-greenhouse and produced their first crops. The produce they grow will be distributed to families in need in their community.

If all girls and young women had the opportunity and support to learn STEM this way, I have no doubt we would develop a generation of young female leaders capable of solving complex problems with thoughtfulness, compassion, and yes, science – just like the students at Frankie Woods.

What’s the real story about girls in STEM?

To understand what’s really happening with girls in STEM, let’s start with the data.

Women earn 57% of bachelor’s degrees and 63% of master’s degrees awarded in America. However, we receive just 31% of degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), including just 19% of engineering degrees and 18% of computer science degrees. Although we represent nearly half of the U.S. workforce, we hold just 25% of STEM jobs.

What’s puzzling about these statistics is that in middle school and high school, girls are mostly evenly represented in math and science, and perform academically as well or better than boys in most of these subjects.

But something happens to girls at a certain point in high school. While they outnumber boys in AP science, boys consistently outnumber girls in AP mathematics. Boys also do better in AP exams.

The trend continues when girls move on to college and choose majors, and then careers. Fewer and fewer pick a STEM field.

Why do girls lose interest in STEM?

To uncover the real reasons for the underrepresentation of women in STEM, the National Science Foundation turned to the American Association of University Women (AAUW). The AAUW published its report in 2013, and pointed primarily to social and environmental factors. For example, some people consider STEM professions more suitable for men and hold negative opinions of women in “masculine” positions. There are few female professors in STEM fields to serve as role models. There is unconscious as well as conscious bias against women in STEM.

Bottom line, the report found that our education system just isn’t as supportive of girls and women in STEM as it is of boys and men – and this may explain the steady drop in the number of girls in STEM over time.

The good news is that even small changes can make a big difference. For example, the report found that when teachers and parents tell students that girls and boys are equally capable in math, performance differences between girls and boys mostly disappear.

Why should we take action?

There are at least three very good reasons why American girls and women should be prepared for and encouraged to choose STEM occupations.

1. The data show that since the recession ended, STEM job opportunities have increased and many of them are going unfilled. Between 2008 and 2018, the U.S. Department of Commerce expects the number of STEM jobs to grow by 17%, compared to a 9.8% growth in non-STEM jobs. The lack of women in the STEM pipeline hurts American companies in search of the best high-tech talent. And that hurts America’s global competitiveness and economic growth.

2. STEM careers tend to pay well, and women who enter STEM fields have more earning power than they would have otherwise. Their families and the communities in which they live benefit from this in many of the same ways they do in developing nations: they experience more economic opportunity and growth. (I wrote about the economic benefits of educating girls in the developing world in a previous post on LinkedIn.)

3. There is growing recognition that diversity (defined simply as difference) is essential to excellence in scientific research. The argument is that solving complex problems is always a group effort, and the ability to see a problem differently – not just being smart – is the key to a breakthrough. As we tackle the huge challenges of our time – poverty, lack of clean water or enough nutritious food, threat of pandemics, climate change – engaging people with different points of view, life and professional experiences, and skill sets will be key. (Dr. Kenneth Gibbs, Jr., a Cancer Prevention Fellow at the National Cancer Institute, makes this last point beautifully in a recent blog post in Scientific American.)

The girls of the Frankie Woods McCullough Academy in Gary, Indiana are proof of the important contributions girls can make when they have the right kind of support and are given challenges relevant to their daily lives.

So, today we celebrate the ingenuity of girls and the teachers who honor them with inclusion and opportunity. And, we congratulate ALL the Solvers. You inspire us!

[Photo Credit: thewomensmuseum via Creative Commons 2.0]

This article appeared on LinkedIn on March 26th, 2015 and can be viewed there by clicking here.
Karen Cator is President and CEO of Digital Promise, a non-profit whose mission is to vastly improve the opportunity for all Americans to learn by accelerating innovation in education through technology and research. From 2009-2013, Cator was Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education.