"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Girls and Science

The Guardian reports that Britain, Canada and the United States are the only countries among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development where 15-year old girls do not outperform boys in science. The National Science Foundation of the United States has compiled statistics that show the gender gap in the sciences and engineering:

The complete report could be dowmloaded at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/
To understand this gap, one must start with the makeup of the population in the US:

Adding all the women, one can see that females make up about half of the population in the US. If certain professions do not reflect a composition similar to the general population, this is a sign of a gap. The following figure (although from a different year) dramatically shows a gender gap:

Here, only 26% of scientists and engineers are women. It is interesting though that Asian males and females are over represented. There is a huge difference between the two figures above. White males are dominating these fields. Yet, productivity-wise, females perform as well as males:
Close to eight percent across the board are publishing. The gender gap is likewise seen in higher education. Although improving across the past decades, the percentage of female full professors is still way below that of the general population.

Interestingly, the participation of women is high in some areas as shown below:

The health care professions (nurses, dietitians, therapists) are dominated by women. Primary and secondary teachers are also mostly female. Females are largely underrepresented in law, medicine, physical science, math and computer science, and engineering. These figures provide good evidence that a gender gap does exist in the sciences (specifically, the physical sciences), math and engineering. The above data are correlated with the results of science exams given to 15-year old students. In the US, female high school students do not perform as well as their male classmates. The Guardian writes the following in the article, "Girls and science: why the gender gap exists and what to do about it":
The US Department of Education has found that girls "who have a strong self-concept regarding their abilities in math or science are more likely to choose and perform well in elective math and science courses and to select math and science-related college majors and careers". 
The department emphasizes that: "improving girls' beliefs about their abilities could alter their choices and performance … particularly as they move out of elementary school and into middle and high school."
The above traces possible origins of the gender gap to as early as middle school. This is particularly interesting since teachers at this level are mostly female.

The United States Department of Education recommends the following steps to address the gender gap in the sciences and engineering:
  1. Teachers should explicitly teach students that academic abilities are expandable and improvable in order to enhance girls’ beliefs about their abilities. Students who view their cognitive abilities as fixed from birth or unchangeable are more likely to experience decreased confidence and performance when faced with difficulties or setbacks. Students who are more confident about their abilities in math and science are more likely to choose elective math and science courses in high school and more likely to select math and science-related college majors and careers.
  2. Teachers should provide students with prescriptive, informational feedback regarding their performance. Prescriptive, informational feedback focuses on strategies, effort, and the process of learning (e.g., identifying gains in children’s use of particular strategies or specific errors in problem solving). Such feedback enhances students’ beliefs about their abilities, typically improves persistence, and improves performance on tasks.
  3. Teachers should expose girls to female role models who have achieved in math or science in order to promote positive beliefs regarding women’s abilities in math and science. Even in elementary school, girls are aware of the stereotype that men are better in math and science than women are. Exposing girls to female role models (e.g., through biographies, guest speakers, or tutoring by older female students) can invalidate these stereotypes.
  4. Teachers can foster girls’ long-term interest in math and science by choosing activities connecting math and science activities to careers in ways that do not reinforce existing gender stereotypes and choosing activities that spark initial curiosity about math and science content. Teachers can provide ongoing access to resources for students who continue to express interest in a topic after the class has moved on to other areas.
  5. Teachers should provide opportunities for students to engage in spatial skills training. Spatial skills training is associated with performance in mathematics and science.
The Guardian lists more specific actions that can be taken:
  • Emphasize that we live in a scientific world
  • Understand that girls generally begin processing information on the language side
  • Girls are more responsive to color than boys
  • Don't just use color-coding as a math activity either
  • Have her read instructions and recipes aloud
  • Once she graduates beyond the simple patterning of blocks, buy her kits (like Lego) that involve building according to instructions
  • Encourage her to learn things by heart
  • Have a younger girl copy a picture from a drawing book or describe something to her that she has to draw
  • Keep doing jigsaw puzzles, even when she seems to lose interest
  • Never tell her the answer
  • Cooking – especially following a recipe – uses both math and science
  • Research shows that as girls get older they retain their mathematical and scientific abilities when applied to domestic scenarios
  • Never accept language such as "I can't do this" or "I'm bad at math"
  • Have the right tools
  • More books, less TV
  • Present your daughter with positive role models
  • Find a female pediatrician
  • Don't tell your daughter that you "suck" at math, or anything else along those lines. 
There is no reason for these suggestions not to apply to young minds, in general. A developing country like the Philippines which lacks manpower in the fields of mathematics and the sciences needs to find every possible way to attract young children to these disciplines. The significance of the female gender should also be considered in the light of the fact that in the Philippines, the educational attainment of the mother correlates strongly with school attendance (or dropouts). Science is mostly hard work and perseverance. It requires interest, for this is the only thing that could overcome the perceived challenges of these subjects. Science could be learned. In fact, it could only be learned. It is not decided by gender. It is not decided by genes. It is nurtured not natural.

To end on a lighter note, here are the two brains:

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