Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.
A few weeks ago I posted the following to five upper Manhattan list-serves of which I am a member: "Storefront Science wonders where all the girls are?" My rhetorical query was a direct response to the disturbingly low number of girls enrolled in our after-school programs and a plea for more girls to take part in these science programs.
Since opening one year ago, Storefront Science has consistently had more boys than girls in our after school science clubs, but not by a large margin. But this term, I was stunned by how few girls had enrolled. In my eight K-5 after school clubs, only 20% of the students are girls. Upon seeing those numbers, I did what any scientist/educator/entrepreneur would do: Ask questions.
First, I reviewed the course offerings: Was it the topics? Well, there is a balanced mix between the natural and physical sciences thus, something for everyone. Our offerings this term included good ole fashioned physics, experimental ecology, an animal kingdom survey, and genetics. Could all those topics be taboo? I doubt it.
Next, I wondered, is it the "role models"? I teach four to six classes and I am female, and I have always had another woman teaching two or more classes per week. So spending time with women scientists is on the menu!
Thirdly, I considered the methodology: Is the pedagogy inviting to girls? All of our classes are integrated, exploratory, and hands-on and allow kids to be creative, work with one another and share their ideas. So based on my 20+ years in education, I knew that the methodology was inviting to both boys and girls alike.
Throwing a monkey wrench into my thinking was the enrollment in my Early Explorers clubs for 2, 3 and 4 years old. I have more girls than boys. Hmmm.
So, what is it? Could it be an age thing? Are girls really not interested in science? Are parents really not directing their girls into science study? Has formal education fortified the stereotype that science is for boys only or "smart kids" or dare I say "nerds" only? Do girls take part in different activities after school - activities that are deemed "more appropriate" for them? Is the "boys club" of science-past (or so we thought) still alive and somehow exerting its power on girls ages 6-10?
The AAUW reports that although school-age boys and girls show the same aptitude in math and science, many girls opt out of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses by the end of high school - if not sooner - which continues to translate into low numbers of female science and engineering majors in college. And a recent article in the Guardian laments the small number of girls taking physics in England (A-levels and university). Apparently, while scientific literacy is becoming more of a necessity in our increasingly technological world, girls are still being marginalized and/or opting out.
As a science educator for more than 20 years, I know what "science" looks like in public schools especially elementary schools where boys and girls start to make decisions about what they like and what they want to be when they grow up. For the most part science is limited, relegated to the background while we focus madly on reading, writing and arithmetic. And when science is done, it's not always done well. Or at least, it is not done via inquiry thus excluding the true excitement of science and missing an opportunity to promote scientific thinking along with science content. And sadly, science is often not taught by teachers who are scientists (or science lovers) themselves. Is public school limiting girls' interest in science? I know my own daughter had abysmal science experiences in elementary school and that it was the state of NYC public science education that motivated me to start Storefront Science. Well, that and my desire to make science accessible, exploratory and fun for everyone.
My question remains: Why are we still discussing this? Perhaps with the long-overdue and much needed STEM "push" from the Obama administration, things might change. But I fear that the gender disparity that has existed for so long in the sciences will continue. How can we fix this? What are you doing to address the issue? I welcome your input.