If I had to use one word to describe why I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Biological Oceanography, it would be ‘worms.’
Let me explain. When I was in sixth grade, my class went on a trip to the Liberty Science Center. We spent most of the day touring the museum, but for the last hour or so we had unstructured “play” in a giant room full of interactive displays. Most of the displays were fancy and flashy, but I spent the entire time looking at transparent worms through a light microscope. I watched the worms squiggle and pulse and swim. They were so gross that I could not look away- they mesmerized me. Wait a minute Do they not have eyes? How do they know where to squiggle to? What do they eat? Is that dirt inside their stomachs?
Now, this was not the first time I was interested in an animal, but it was the first time I was seriously curious about how an animal worked. I was simply given some time and space to come up with some questions.
My parents always encouraged my natural interests.1 They never tried to “make” me curious, or push me towards a certain field. Children are naturally curious, and one of the best things that parents and teachers can do is to follow a child’s lead. Having said that- why are there so few women scientists, mathematicians, and engineers? Girls and boys in elementary and high school do not significantly differ in their math or science abilities, but by the time they are applying to college, boys are three times more likely to pursue science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) majors. From there, the gender gap widens.
Research shows that girls decide to become involved in STEM or related fields early on as children, particularly when they begin playing with toys. According to studies commissioned by Microsoft, male students are more likely to pursue STEM fields because they have always enjoyed toys or games in those subject areas. Many girls’ toys lag behind in the development of spatial skills and confidence with technology. The toys that are available have a subtle but consistent influence on the choices they make later in life. By seventh grade, most girls have lost interest in STEM fields.
Parents and educators can do a lot to foster curiosity about STEM fields:
- Spread the word about girls’ and women’s achievements in math and science. The more people hear about the achievements of women and girls in math or science, the harder it will be to believe the stereotype that men are better in these areas than women.
- Expose girls to female role models in STEM fields.
- Exploring nature can be a source of inspiration to study science later in life, and visits to science, technology, or natural history museums can spark curiosity.
- There’s a program called DIGITS, where engineers go into classrooms and share their work in a fun and relatable way. http://digits.us.com/
- There are organizations like FAB Labs, which give everyday people tools for designing and fabricating anything they want.
- Introduce books like Math Doesn’Suck and Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape by Danica McKellar.
For younger girls:
- Companies like GoldieBlox make toys for girls that promote hands-on problem solving, and increase confidence in technology.
- Companies like Roominate design toys that combine crafts, design, and storytelling, and use modular furniture building pieces and walls, as well as motor and light circuits.
Moreover, there are opportunities for girls who are applying to colleges that are looking for female scientists. For instance, Rutgers has an award-winning program that provides support for undergraduate women pursuing degrees in STEM: https://douglass.rutgers.edu/douglass-project-rutgers-women-math-science-and-engineering
Internships or STEM initiatives can help high school girls think about STEM careers before they start the college admissions process. For example, DigiGirls, a Microsoft program, gives high school girls the opportunity to work with Microsoft employees: https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/diversity/programs/digigirlz/hightechcamp.aspx
If our education system were perfect and no biases or prejudices existed, parents and educators would not need to do much- except maybe stay out of the way. Alas, things are not perfect, and both girls and boys decide that they don’t like math or science before these subjects reveal their true beauty. This is worsened by the often unimaginative ways that science and math are taught. It’s our job, as parents and educators, to make sure that this beauty is not lost on them.
1The one exception was when, at the age of eleven, I embarked upon a destructive journey of making my own animal encyclopedias. The Encyclopaedia Britannica in our home, like all encyclopedias at the time, organized its entries alphabetically. This offended my inclination to categorize things by ‘natural’ order; there was something unsettling about having aardvarks, airplanes, and Arkansas in one book, especially a leather-bound book. Anyway, I decided to make my own set of animal encyclopedias, organized by taxa. This alone would not have been a problem, but I had cut out animal pictures from our leather-bound Britannica to use for my own encyclopedias. Needless to say, my parents FLIPPED out. In my defense, I will say that the leather-bound encyclopedias are now outdated, and housing a robust ecosystem of dust mites and spiders in my parents’ attic.
Joomi Kim is an Ivy Ed test-prep tutor.