It was not until the film "Hidden Figures" hit the big screen that the real life story of three black women’s mathematical ingenuity became widely celebrated and credited for the space race victory against the Soviet Union. This film illuminates the amazing contributions of the women’s brain power and perseverance during NASA’s formative years, a time in which they were overshadowed by their male counterparts.
The movie sparked conversations across the nation, such as the one at The Ohio State University, on getting and keeping girls and minorities engaged in math and the sciences. The National Girls Collaborative Project is one such organization leading the charge to provide opportunities for girls in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) while also working to help these young minds eventually pursue careers in these fields.
Girls and boys on par in math and science
The National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP) reports that while male and female performance in high-level math and science courses is on equal footing throughout the K-12 experience, gender gaps in math and science begin to take hold when looking at trends in higher education and the workforce.
In 2013, the NGCP reports that women earned 57.3 percent of all bachelor’s degrees representing all fields, but came in at 50.3 percent for degrees earned in science and engineering. In fact, almost half of the science degrees earned by women are in biology rather than engineering or the physical sciences, according to the National Science Foundation. Women comprise just 13 percent of the engineering workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
So what does this mean for girls and math, science and engineering? How is it that girls keep pace with their male counterparts until the college years? The cognitive abilities and skills are present, so what’s the deterrent for so many young women?
What drives girls out of math and science
Harvard Business Review published “Why So Many Women Who Study Engineering Leave the Field” which uncovers the shift that occurs in higher education. The article sheds light on how women tend to harbor insecurity when it comes to their problem-solving abilities. This lack of confidence, combined with enforcement of gender stereotypes, can push many young women to explore other career pathways.
Ruling Our Experiences (ROX), a non-profit organization based out of Columbus, is helping to empower young girls to get support systems in place to realize their potential. In studying the perception young girls have of themselves, ROX found that the higher a girl’s GPA, the more inclined she is to feel inadequate and unable to reach her dream career. ROX also found that girls who don’t believe they are smart enough for their dream job are less likely to believe they are good in math and science.
To keep girls interested in math and science and feel that pursuing them is a real possibility, building confidence, setting goals and social-emotional learning must be part of the equation.
Perhaps the best way to combat this gender gap is to provide girls with a hearty dose of practical problem-solving opportunities throughout their education, along with very intentional instruction, encouragement and a safe place to express vulnerability. It's critical to validate the experience girls face in pursuing ambitious goals in math and science. Career exploration also goes a long way in exposing students to future opportunities. By parlaying skill-building with activities that boost confidence, a passion for lifelong learning can be instilled.
Conceptual Math Program at The Summit
The Summit Country Day School features a Conceptual Math Program in grades 1-4 that has problem-solving and building confidence at the core for students. Classroom teachers receive assistance from two math specialists, Duke University-trained Julia Almaguer and M.I.T-trained Michelle Sullivan, in meeting each student's needs.
Highlights of The Summit’s Conceptual Math Program:
● Math is conceptualized from concrete ideas to pictorial and abstract thinking.
● Every unit explores essential questions that have practical applications to sustain understanding.
● Curriculum lays a foundation for Algebraic thinking by having students identify and analyze patterns.
● Formative and summative assessments allow teachers to check for understanding and to differentiate instruction to meet all learning needs.
● Mathematical writing helps to solidify understanding as students use written expression by keeping journals, solving math problems and explaining mathematical concepts.
● A focus on 21st century Math, where students integrate the arts from start to finish, applies principles of economics in a competitive business plan exercise.
Such rigorous curriculum provides students with a strong foundation from which to build and a sense of resiliency in having pushed themselves through challenging tasks. This practice, combined with emotional support and validation, can help banish the fear of failure to help all students achieve success.
Time is now for parental support
Parental support and encouragement are also critical variables to help girls pursue an interest in math and science. PBS provides helpful tips such as connecting young girls with STEM opportunities outside of school and linking them to positive role models in those fields.
For America to remain competitive in a rapidly-changing global workforce, it is essential that channels are developed to help girls pursue math and sciences beyond high school. These young minds are equipped for the challenge. Women bring a unique perspective and dimension to solving critical problems in medicine, space exploration and in the military, to name a few. Let’s also not forget that we need strong teachers in the math and sciences to serve as mentors and empower young girls to go after their dreams.
How can you, as a parent or educator, shift your own thinking to make math and science careers more accessible to women? For this change to be systemic, it must start by considering all the possibilities for our young girls.
Author Jay Cooper is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer.