This weekend, over 400 teachers – from primary grades to high school – attended the 34th Annual Conference of the Greater San Diego Mathematics Council (GSDMC). I had the opportunity to connect with 30 teachers who stepped in to listen to my session: “Learn How to Promote STEM to Girls”.
Math teachers have always inspired me. They are a key pathway to many girls for introducing them to Engineering. This was my opportunity to assess just how much of the research the teachers knew on the factors that influence whether a girl enters STEM or not and to get their feedback.
The STEM research on women was new to a majority of the teachers. Fewer than 20% had heard about the impact of outdated stereotypes on test scores and in girls self-assessments, implicit biases, or on the need to develop spatial visualization skills. The best known research was on Growth Mindset – related to how we give praise – with 30% of the teachers having heard it before. The updated engineering messaging was new to virtually everyone.
The teachers were aware at just how well high school girl have been doing – girls have been out performing boys in overall math and science GPA and credit hours for over twenty years. But they were definitely surprised to hear that fewer than 5% of the over 1,000 parents I have presented the research to knew this fact. In the end, they appreciated the need to send the message that “both boys and girls are performing equally well in math and science” to both their students AND to the parents.
Recommendations from the educators:
- “Have film producers generate a movie or TV show of brilliant women engineers unravelling design failures.”
- Expand the session next year into a whole strand: provide the research and then integrate it with teachers providing concrete class room examples.
- More people need to hear the research: present it to more educators, school administrations, my entire department, high school students, college students, struggling students, girl scout troop leaders.
Sixty people were in attendance at my keynote address for the parents program at the tenth annual Expanding Your Horizons (EYH) conference held on USD campus – which is more than the forty parents who registered. Here are some comments from the program:
“I need to incorporate spatial skills training” – Hearing about the work of Mechanical Engineering Professor Sheryl Sorby in how female students often had a gap in their basic spatial skills training prompted an ah-ha moment for one middle school educator. Many of her students were having a difficult time visualizing the structure of DNA molecules. She realized this was likely due to their lack of spatial skills awareness. Her plan now is to incorporate spatial skills training to make the assignments easier to comprehend for all students.
“What about Alice?” – One parent commented on female engineering role models in the media, namely the Alice character in Dilbert. While Alice and her trailblazing “fist of death” shows a woman willing to literally plough through obstacles at work, the main point of bringing up Dilbert in the first place was to showcase the characterizations of engineering as an anti-social, dysfunctional, stereotypical nerdy engineer atmosphere. While the equity in including a female engineer in a cartoon is notable – I don’t think anyone would consider entering a STEM career based on Dilbert or Alice as role models. Thank goodness for organizations like EYH and SWE for showcasing venues to allow the girls to be paired up with the real life role models. That is the only way to dispell the nerdy myth.
“My daughter is a fighter” – After the event, one parent came up to me to introduce her daughter, Destiny, noting with a twinkle in her eye that ‘she was a fighter’. It was a strong commitment that she as a parent was not daunted by the research presented and believed her daughter would be successful in STEM. I asked Destiny – who was still charged from a day full of hands on activities from the EYH program – to bolster her chances in fighting well by taking debate. Debate is an excellent means to strengthen ones verbal skills and ability to present a convincing argument. If one is going to promote a project, defend a design, and negotiate in this world, one needs the ability to present a strong case for yourself or your team.
“Should I encourage my daughter into STEM knowing she definitely wants to start a family?” – Hearing the workplace research about why women leave engineering can be difficult to present to a parent audience. Many STEM careers require working long hours, some work environments are not as supportive as they could be. However, I would say that our American corporate culture is the one with the issue of not being family friendly. We as a nation need to do more to help women and men better balance work and family.
“All this effort to get girls into STEM is for naught unless there are special provisions for girls in college admissions to allow the increase in numbers”. I disagree. To reframe, the research shows that schools like Carnegie Mellon have been exceptionally effective in changing the percentages of women in their computer science department from 7% to 40% within a few short years simply by making minor changes to the departmental culture and policies. These incremental changes simply removed the barriers, stopped catering to one specific subgroup, and built up an inclusive environment. These incremental changes while good for the women proved equally good for men: retention numbers increased to nearly 100% for both genders.
“Two of the best engineers in my group are women. They bring an ability to think outside of the box”. This comment from a male parent is just one aspect of the value of diversity that helps corporations stay competitive.
Want Your Daughter to be an Engineer? Better Watch What You Say!
“Girls do as well as or better than boys in high school math and science and many of them are well prepared and hard working but would not consider a STEM career. Why? Maybe they are getting the wrong messages. Possibly even from you! Come learn from the latest research on why there are so few women in the Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (or STEM) and see what you as parent, educator, and employer can do. Come learn how early career choices are made, the threats girls pursuing STEM careers face, and how to change societal dialogue and behaviors that hinder girls in their pursuit of STEM careers. Hope to see you there.”
This is the new title and abstract to my keynote address for the Expanding Your Horizons (EYH) Parent-Educator Program, March 3rd 2012, where I will be presenting the latest research on women in engineering and the sciences. Traditionally this program has attracted about 70 parents to this 500 girl event. To bring in more parents and educators, the EYH organizers will be marketing the parent program for the first time. This new marketing approach was the inspiration for the title “Want Your Daughter to be an Engineer? Better Watch What Your Say!”. Time will tell if more parents stay to hear the research – instead of just dropping their daughters off – or if the new direct mailings to educators will entice them to spend a little time on a Saturday morning to hear the research. In any case, I look forward to presenting the latest material to the parents and to see if we can make inroads with the San Diego County educators.
Update Nov 8th — The San Diego Computer-Using Educators (SDCUE) conference consisted of four rooms of vendor displays, six 45 minute presentation tracks of 19 presentations/track. I had heard there were 90 educators in attendance – but I want to say there were more. The vendors were selling their wares from a 75 zoom projector microscope attracting educators to their display of the resting non-descript bugs sitting on a twig in a white paper coffee cup, plenty of software packages, and even the Science Fair folks and a team from the Ruben H Fleet Science Center advertising their afterschool events. Nothing else engineering related that I could see.
My presentation was in a computer lab, with a computer and monitor on every desktop. With the short ceiling and free-standing projector screen squeezed in between the first row of desks and the chalk board, it was a little tough for the audience to look over their monitors to see the full screen. The ten minutes between classes, was just enough time to hook up my laptop for the presentation. I followed a man speaking on emoting software.
The class consisted of 20 people, mostly educators, 1 parent, 2 STEM education majors. One educator was an engineer turned educator :>. One was from the Ruben H Fleet Science Center who wanted to see what the Why So Few? presentation might have to offer. Only one person in the audience had heard of/read the AAUW Report (hats off to the Ruben H Fleet education specialist). For the remainder of the class, 90% of the material was new.
From the parents program feedback, and the handful of educators I had met in them, I had come to the general impression that educators were aware of some of the older pieces of research – like the stereotype threat that is at least 15 years old. But after this event, I have to recalibrate as I explained in much fuller detail the background the reasoning behind the research than planned.
Lessons learned: the AAUW research material is still fresh, educators are eager to connect up with engineers who might want to visit and present to their class (great tie in for the SWE-SD Speakers Bureau), and the WGBH materials need help in getting the word out about their opportunities.
— Nov 4th — Giving my first presentation to an educators conference – San Diego Computer-Using Educators – at Cal State San Marcos this Saturday Nov 5th, 2001. The title is “Why So Few Girls in Engineering? Change the Stories!”.