Nov 26, 2013

Girls in STEM > Guideline #5: STEM and...


No, you didn’t miss four other posts in the Girls in STEM series that followed The Curious Case of Girls in STEM post. As a woman engineer, I seem to I defy stereotypes about engineering in more ways than one. Being non-linear at times is apparently one manifestation.

There is logic behind my apparent madness, though. In early October, I moderated a panel about women in computing for high school girls. During the Questions and Answer session, I was reminded continually that “STEM and …” was something that girls need to know how to resolve. Let me elaborate:

The girls kept asking about how to combine their interest in engineering or computers with their interest in music or art. They asked for help in picking colleges since they were too artsy for a typical tech program and too geeky for a typical arts one.

I wasn’t surprised. Girls tend to be “opportunity gatherers” (as opposed to “opportunity hunters”). They open their eyes and see what opportunities are available, then nibble to get a taste and see if it suits their plate. Research on computer science majors described men having a “turning point”—a discovery moment – sort of like when a fine buck is noticed in the wood. Then like a focused hunter, they pursue computer science with all their might. Women, on the other hand, described “trying out” computer science, often in college, often because the course was required. Instead of love at first sight, their stories talk about growing to appreciate it gradually, like a fine wine.

This may help explain why girls who are good enough to go into STEM don’t choose STEM careers. Research shows that talented students with a “tilt” towards math versus verbal abilities will tend to pick careers that leverage them. While boys tend to be at the extremes in math performance (very, very good, and very, very poor), girls fill out the math spectrum in a more “normal distribution.” Additionally, they tend to have comparable, if not better verbal scores. While boys good in math are specialists, girls are more academic decathletes, all-rounders. As a result, they have the luxury of choosing to use their skills in areas that they find more appealing. This may be why girls choose the careers they do. If they can be successful at anything, it is easy to see why they choose pursuits that will challenge them creatively (e.g. humanities, arts) or provide a sense of purpose (e.g. medicine, law, social work, education). 

A cynic would ask, How to counter this? But I like to ask, How to use this? In my years advising at a women’s college, I explained to my students that learning STEM deeply gives them more to work with, mastery of tools and abilities that allow them to create or to help folks: A strong chemistry background provides the knowledge to develop new drugs; Understanding physics gives insight into determining what happened in a crime situation regarding ballistics, blunt force trauma, and electrocution; Mastering the computer turns the machine into a paintbrush to create animations, robotic recitals, or musical concoctions. When students see that studying STEM gives them expertise useful in their other interests, they are more excited and committed to pursue these fields.

For those who want more formal recognition of their multifaceted selves, double majoring or minoring is another option. I have seen chemistry, math, and environmental science combined with philosophy, French, theology, sociology, music, and critical studies of race and ethnicity.

History provides examples of multitalented women and the unique path they took in STEM, often motivated by personal desire and leveraging non-STEM individual talents and interests:

  • Take Lillian Moller Gilbreth: Originally an English major (she had to make a deal with her father to even let her go to college), she got a Ph.D. in Psychology when she realized she needed to think of the human side in the efficiency methods she was developing. Her work became the foundations of today’s Industrial Engineering.
  • Or Hedy Lamarr: This famous 1940’s actress developed and was awarded a patent to create encrypted wireless communication during WWII and is considered the basis of today’s secure cell and wireless technology. Despite her desire to use her brains to help the war effort, she did the best she could by using her starlet status to sell war bonds.
  • Or Grace Hopper: This mathematics major was also an athlete, playing basketball, field hockey, and water polo. When WWII broke out, she wanted to do her part as her grandfather did and join the Navy. Even though she was too old and too light for the Navy’s program, they made an exception because they wanted her brains to work on the forerunner of the computer. Later she used experience from basketball plays to develop the computer compiler that allows humans to use English words when programming rather than numeric codes.
The “AND…” element is important to the inner identity of girls; it is what will motivate them through the difficult times of studying in a traditional STEM program. That is why when I consult with schools, I ensure that connections are an important element of how teachers STEMify their lessons. Being conscious of these will help girls remind themselves, as I did in the tough times, why this was the right path for me (see How a toilet saved my life). It is also why I encourage parents to help their girls find ways to explore and combine their multitude of seemingly disparate interests. These intersections are the elements that make their daughters unique and interesting individuals (see It’s my thing: A new approach to girls and STEM).

More importantly, history shows us that the ability to see the connections is how important contributions to STEM are made. Girls don’t need to “fit” into STEM stereotypes. By following their natural passions and combining them with STEM, they will makeover the STEM image to reflect its actual nature: “STEM AND…” is not innovative; it is innovation itself.

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