Saturday, November 8, 2008

Women, Minorities and STEM

Why are women and Hispanic minorities underrepresented in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields? This was the topic of our class a few weeks ago and it is a great question.

In 2003, 18% of physics PhDs were awarded to women. While those numbers are growing, the number of women obtaining PhDs in engineering and physics lags behind other sciences. I mention physics and engineering specifically, because I was a physics major as an undergraduate student. I did not continue on to the graduate level in math or science despite my ability and encouragement from professors. I never felt discriminated against because I was a women. I was given every opportunity that my fellow students were given. Why didn't I continue? I have my reasons I guess: I didn't want to work in a cubicle, I wanted to travel, I wanted to work more closely with people, I wanted to make a direct difference in people's lives. But, looking back, I could have done all of those things as a physics PhD. Was there something more unconscious that prevented me from going to graduate school in physics or math? I didn't give up on science and math completely. I became a physics teacher and taught physics and math until recently. I'm proud that I was a science-loving, female role model for both male and female high school students. But I still wonder why I didn't continue on in physics - a subject I love to learn.

As we discussed in class, we all seemed to come back to one issue: lack of good role models. I think people do what they are comfortable doing. What they are comfortable doing sometimes depends on what they see people around them doing. Maybe Hispanic minorities and women don't pursue STEM careers because they don't see others like them there? Maybe I didn't try to obtain a PhD in physics because no one in my family is an academic? Maybe the math and science homework problems we solve in school typically appeal to certain students, so that women and Hispanic minorities are turned away? I'd like to share the following section from "The Secrets to Increasing Females in Technology":
The Value of Technology
The Extraordinary Women Engineers Project, a coalition
of engineering organizations, academic institutions,
corporations, and individuals, asked why high school girls
with the academic preparation to major in engineering
found tbe profession so unappealing. Among the several
interesting results uncovered by a study of this segment
by WGBH Research, was the preference for working in an
area that "makes a difference.." Any technology teacher can
discuss how everything from our planet's ability to sustain
its population to the ubiquity of mobile phones is thanks to
technology. However, the value of technology is not common
knowledge, nor is it frequently reflected in the exercises in the
classroom or in after-school programs. Have your students
solved the problem of a "bomb dropping from a plane" or
a "CARE package dropping from a plane"? Am I building
a robot that will fight with the other team's robot, or is my
team collaborating with another team to build a single robot
that will help the elderly continue to live in their own homes?
The technology and science is the same, but the girls will
find the benefits of the end product something compelling
to address the collaboration with other teams rather than
attempting to make competition more enjoyable. One ITEA
member described how he transformed a project to design
a BMX park into a project where the students could choose
to design a BMX park, a skateboarding park, a zoo, or a city
park. Although all students had comparable experiences in
design, innovation, and applying their knowledge, the boys
almost exclusively chose the BMX park and skateboarding
park while the girls almost exclusively selected the zoo
and city park. His experience not only showed the gender
differences, but also showed how a creative solution can be
effective without being more costly or involving significantly
more effort.
When does this change. When will we have enough role models that value this kind of differentiation in the science and math classroom? Will we finally reach a point where we have enough role models to ensure more equal representation in STEM fields? What is your view?

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