Fact 1: Miley Cyrus isn’t out there touting her love for all things STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in between twerks.
Fact 2: teenage girls are watching her gyrate her way across the globe, hungrily gulping down everything she does. The science is simple: teenagers eat up popular culture, and media sources simply aren’t serving them anything that makes math and science remotely appetizing – in fact, quite the opposite.
Early in October, The Globe and Mail published Educators still trying to attract more women to technology, science fields, which sums up the key point: girls are just as mathematically inclined as their male counterparts, yet their participation in post-secondary STEM programs is dismal at best. Why? Today the ‘nature’ argument is long gone. We can no longer argue that boys are better at math and science – in 7 out of 10 provinces, the opposite is true! That leaves us with ‘nurture.’ Authors Hammer and Alphonso suggest several plausible reasons that girls might be discouraged from pursuing STEM, including the fact that “girls in North America view high-tech and engineering fields as nerdy, for people who don’t have good social skills.” They have hit the nail on the head.
I see hundreds of teenagers weekly at The Math Guru, a tutoring studio I founded to make STEM fun, accessible, and, most importantly, cool. Why? After years of research, I found that the main reason girls opt out is because of the reputation STEM has. Girls have told me point blank that they would rather flunk math class than be known as “that girl.” For high school students, the dearth of job opportunities for those without a math and science background is nothing compared to the perils of being labeled a (gasp!) nerd.
We’ve seen numerous initiatives attempt to get girls interested in STEM, showing them exciting career possibilities and the many ways math and science can be used in real life. But let’s face it: function is not what coolness is made of. Ideally, Hollywood would do its part and create more multi-dimensional female protagonists. I wholeheartedly congratulate ER and Grey’s Anatomy for the increase in women who have opted for med school over the past decade – after all, who can resist the possibility of an emergency room encounter with the likes of McDreamy? Unfortunately, we have little say in what version of ‘cool’ gets pumped out of the 90210 factory next, so to win girls over we need to do our part to counter Hollywood’s negative stereotyping.
Grassroots: What Can WE Do?
While we can’t necessarily tweak Miley’s twerk, we can promote role models such as Natalie Portman and Emma Watson who wear their intelligence with pride. We can use media literacy in our math and science classrooms to help teenagers deconstruct media messaging in order to understand the consequences of the disempowering stereotypes they are being sold. We can begin to examine our schools and the messages they send to young women regarding math and science. We can begin to wonder whether more interactive approaches are needed in the classroom and whether academic environments in which STEM learning takes place really need to be as unfriendly and antisocial as they often are.
The teenagers that thrive with me every day endlessly comment on how much they love being in a space where math and science do not simply exist in a nerd-vacuum, and how happy they are to be able to be themselves while being intelligent. That, to me, says it all. If we can find a way to allow coolness and intelligence to coexist rather than repel one another, we will begin to see a generation of teenage girls as enthusiastic about STEM as they are about the latest pop culture wrecking ball.
Why wait? Start now!
There are so many creative ways that we can all be a part of changing STEM culture - Check out the following list of people who are already changing the equation, and get inspired!
1. Team "We Made It": Earlier this year I had the absolute honour of attending the web launch for wemadeit, a site dedicated to making engineering an accessible choice that girls can actually imagine for themselves. The site was made for high school girls by high school girls and is super innovative and straight up COOL. Share it with a teenager you know and help them see engineering from a different perspective!
2. Danica McKellar: Best known for her role as Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years (ahhh the memories!), Danica has been a huge proponent of making math accessible and attractive to young women. She totally comes from the same camp as I do, believing that media stereotypes give math a bad reputation and that it is up to us to market math to girls in a way that speaks to them. She has an awesome book series aimed at teaching girls math in a lexicon they can actually understand - it's awesome, check it out!
3. GoldieBlox: Marketed as "toys that give girls confidence in problem solving," GoldieBlox is aimed at fostering girls' problem solving skills and showing them just how awesome engineering can be! Most recently, GoldieBlox revealed a new doll, Goldie, who actually has limbs that MOVE (sorry Barbie, you may have won the battle but...)! Goldie comes with a 9-meter zip line kit that kids can build - HOW cool is that?! Not convinced? Watch Goldieblox's viral video, guaranteed to give you goosebumps!
4. Roominate: As seen on ABC's Shark Tank, Roominate is DIY dollhouse kit to the power of awesome! Roominate allows kids to design and build furniture and entire STRUCTURES, and helps them totally perfect their spatial skills! Roominate has won a ton of awards for being an innovative toy in terms of encouraging STEM development - so cool, I want!
5. Think About Math: Every year I run a workshop at The University of Waterloo's Think About Math! (TAM) conference for Grade 9 girls. TAM is designed to get girls excited about math and my workshop focuses on breaking down media stereotypes surrounding STEM & Femininity - it's basically a makeover - for math! The application period begins in February - I know that's forever away, but it's never too early to start dreaming big! For more info, click here!