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Encouraging Girls in Math and Science: Questions with Assistant Professor Jon Star

By Jill Anderson on November 21, 2007 9:56 AM

Jon StarThe new practice guide by the National Center for Education Research, Encouraging Girls in Math and Science, offers five recommendations for educators in order to strengthen girls’ beliefs about their abilities in math and science, spark and maintain greater interest in these subject areas, and build associated skills. Assistant Professor Jon Star, an educational psychologist who studies children’s learning of mathematics, is one of the six researchers involved in the project. “Teachers play a crucial role — not only in terms of the math and science content that they teach but also in the explicit and implicit messages that teachers communicate about effort and ability,” Star says.  In this interview, Star discusses the guide and explores the complexities of math and science learning.

Q. What are some of the reasons women do not attain as many degrees in computer science, physics, or engineering as men do?                    

A: It is important to be very cautious when making generalizations about gender differences in degree attainment in various fields, as the situation is more complex than it may first appear. For example, in 2004, women earned 58 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, including 62 percent of bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences, 51 percent in chemistry, and 46 percent in mathematics. Similarly, in 2004 women earned 54 percent of all master’s degrees and 45 percent of all doctoral degrees. Yet it is true that, in certain fields such as computer science, physics, and engineering, there are gender differences in degree attainment, with substantially fewer women earning degrees at all levels than men. There are many factors that play into these disparities, but there are two key reasons.

Previous coursework likely impacts college degree attainment. Although girls who graduated from high school, on average, earned slightly more credits in mathematics and science than boys, boys earned more credits in computer-related courses. In addition, a greater percentage of boys complete courses such as calculus and physics, while girls were more likely to complete biology and chemistry.

Q. How much of a role does confidence play in a girl’s ability to do math and science?

Boys and girls on average hold different beliefs about their abilities in math and science, their interest in math and science, and their perceptions of the importance of math and science for their futures. In general, girls are less confident in their math abilities and show less interest in math and science careers, beginning in early adolescence.

Belief in one’s abilities plays a critical role in students’ ability to do well in all subject areas but particularly in math and science. Research tells us that students — both boys and girls — who have a strong self-concept about their abilities in math and science are more likely to choose and perform well in elective math and science courses and to pursue math- and science-related majors. Clearly beliefs and interest strongly impact both future course-taking and career trajectories. As we discuss in the practice guide, this is one area where we feel that educators can make a real difference. Improving girls’ beliefs about their abilities can alter career choices and academic performances.

Q: What are some strategies teachers can use to improve a girl’s confidence in her math and science ability?

First and most critically, educators can teach their students that math and science abilities – like all abilities – can be improved over time through consistent effort and learning. Many students believe that people are born with a fixed amount of intelligence and that the abilities that one is born with cannot be changed. Research shows that those with this fixed or unchangeable view of intelligence are more likely to experience greater discouragement, lower performance, and ultimately reduce their effort when they face difficulties or setbacks. In contrast, students who view their abilities as expandable tend to keep trying in the face of frustration in order to increase their performance.

Second, educators can provide students with prescriptive, informative feedback regarding their performance in math and science classes. This kind of feedback focuses on strategies, efforts, and the learning process, such as saying, “You worked really hard on that problem,” rather than general praise like, “Nice job,” or feedback about global intelligence like, “You are so smart!” This kind of feedback highlights the importance of effort so it can help create an environment where students are not discouraged by failure but view incorrect answers as opportunities for learning.

Q: How can teachers avoid reinforcing gender stereotypes when speaking to their students about math and science careers?

Educators can expose students to female role models who are experts in math and science fields. This exposure can happen through assigned biographical readings about women scientists, mathematicians, or engineers; calling attention to current events highlighting the achievements of women in math and science; and by making students aware of the number of women who receive advanced degrees in math and science fields each year. In addition, teachers can invite women who can serve as role models to be guest speakers or tutors. In many ways, the most effective role models are those who communicate that struggle and self-doubt are normal and that success takes hard work. A role model who communicates this may serve as a greater inspiration to persist through difficulty than someone for whom achievement seemed effortless.

Q. Why is it so important for teachers to make an effort to reach girls in math and science?

Numerous national reports have suggested that we face serious workforce shortages for jobs requiring high-level science and mathematics skills. Some have even expressed concern that shrinking numbers of qualified mathematicians and scientists may cause the United States to lose its leadership role in science and technology in the world. Now consider these issues in light of the under-representation of women in science and engineering jobs and in academic positions in research universities in mathematics and science. We know that there are many women who are quite capable of succeeding in math, science, and engineering but who have lost interest in these fields during their elementary, secondary, or college education. Clearly teachers play a critical role in nurturing and supporting girls’— as well as boys’— learning of mathematics and science.