A recent study from St. Mary’s College found girls than boys in math and science while they are in middle school. But then something happens, and by 9th grade they to start lag significantly behind their male peers.
The study showed girls scoring as much as 39 points lower than boys on the math and science portions of the SAT. There were similar gaps on the ACT and AP exams.
Lead researcher Kristin Kuter, assistant professor in mathematics at St. Mary’s wasn’t surprised.
“Looking at education, one of the things that we saw – this is not a new discovery – that there is a drop in interest, especially math and sciences, when girls transition from middle school to high school,” Kuter says.
The million-dollar question is why.
The St. Mary’s study took a look at poverty, mental health,and violence as possible factors. Other studies have looked at MRIs, international testing data, infant attention spans and several other possible causes.
All of the research shows there’s not a single a reason, but rather a lot of contributing factors.
In fact, 2008 study looked at international assessments of 15-year-old students from 40 countries. It found that girls performed just as well or better than boys in math in Norway, Sweden, and Iceland.
Jennifer Groh, director of the Women in Engineering Program at Purdue University, offered a common explanation for the lagging scores in the States: “stereotype threat,” a phenomenon first studied among black students in the early 1990s.
“So in this case, if we’ve grown up, our mothers telling us or society telling us that we’re not as good at math as the boys are – we go into a room to take a math exam, that is going to impact how we do,” Groh says. “The stress, the pressure, the time constraints, can bear on us in a way it doesn’t bear on men.”
Breaking The Stereotype
At Perry Meridian High School on the southeast side of Indianapolis, the robotics team prepares for next year’s competition. Of 40 team members, eight are girls. They attribute the drop in interest among their peers to a simple lack of awareness of math and science.
“They think it’s intimidating because they don’t know. They think, I would never be able to do that,” team member Natalie Gilbert says. “I used to think that too.”
Fellow team member Amber Stull agrees.
“They don’t necessarily understand everything that we do. And once explained, it’s like, oh, I should have joined that, I should have been involved as well,” she says.
Team member Becky Combs originally wanted to be a lawyer, not an engineer. Like Stull and Gilbert, she was also found the prospect of advanced math intimidating. But she suffered a knee injury and couldn’t play on the basketball team one year, so she joined the robotics team instead.
“It’s sometimes challenging, but I find a lot of the boys respect the girls,” Combs said. “A lot of them come to me and ask me if they have a problem, because I run the mill and am so diverse with the tools that I can explain things that they may not know how to do.”
All three girls plan to continue down the science path as they enter college. They’ll be part of Indiana’s growing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields.
But national numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau show women hold only about a quarter of STEM jobs.
By day, Chris Fultz works as an engineer at Rolls–Royce, but in his spare time he volunteers to coach Perry Meridian High School’s robotics team. He thinks women should join STEM fields because engineering and science benefit from different problem-solving styles.
“I think that men and women look at problems differently, and I believe that the opportunities are equal – but I think the way people look at problems is different,” Fultz said. “And that’s good, that gives you diversity of thought and good diversity on finding solutions.”
Heading To The Moon
Cyndy Meier, a long-time science educator, thinks emphasis on math and science needs to happen even earlier than middle school – going all the way back to elementary grades.
“I also am wondering if we need to break this mold of one way to teach math and science. Maybe our girls need to learn math and science differently than some boys,” Meier says.
Meier works at the Challenger Learning Center in Indianapolis where students can learn about the math and science behind space travel.
On a recent weekday, 6th graders from Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic School in Indianapolis are being launched into space. Dozens of boys and girls work out math problems in an attempt to land on the moon.
They are extremely engaged. Their eyes brighten and open wide as they successfully complete a part of their mission, then watch their spacecraft approach the moon.
“Seeing them become more confident, seeing them become more inspired, seeing the connection between this one-time job that they did in relationship to their education and what they’re doing in the classroom – that’s exciting.”
The question is whether they will maintain such interest once they reach high school and eventually transition into their careers.