Oct 21, 2014

Boys and Girls in STEM

photo by sulaco229 (Robert), via RGBstock.com

The natural question people have for me after I run a blog series on Girls in STEM is: what about the boys? It's always a good point. It's true that many STEM areas, particularly engineering and technology--Engineer's Playground's areas of specialty--are male-dominated. But studying why girls leave STEM also shows that some of the same issues keep many boys from pursuing STEM. 

Women are the canaries in the coal mine. -- Leonore Blum, Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist

Not all boys are good at math: Evidence shows is that many interventions made to encourage more women and girls into STEM also help men and boys who don't fit the stereotypes. It's a fallacy is that all boys are good at math. In reality, male performance is bi-modal--distributed at the very high levels and at the very low. Female performance, on the other hand, is more distributed in a bell curve. (Here's Scientific American's timeless overview of research on gender differences, "Sex, Math and Scientific Achievement".) 

Not all boys know how to use technology: So many engineering professors lament to me, "Kids these days don't know how to fix things." One machine shop instructor even showed me his "Glue Shelf"--all the glue that his (mostly male) students used to connect their metal parts together. After their parts failed to stay together, he confiscated the glue and informed them that screws, bolts, and nuts might work better.

Soft skills make a difference, but need to be taught: More social, collegial, communicative environments help retain women, but they also develop the soft skills needed for success in STEM. However, many STEM programs, particularly engineering, don't actually teach these in a technical setting. This is unfortunate, since most recruiters encourage young engineers to develop these soft skills for success (see Thomas Net's "5 Must-Have Soft Skills for Engineers' Career Success," or NES Global Talent's "Soft Skills"). Some studies show that salaries for those with good soft skills can be up to $5000/year higher than those without them (see ASME's "Public Speaking and the Type 'C' Personality").

So whether you are teaching boys or girls or both, consider new ways to teach STEM. Such interventions can encourage both girls and boys into STEM--and your students will thank you for the opportunity to see STEM differently.

~ until next time, Yvonne