What a young girl can learn from Utah women about STEM education and careers

Published: Tuesday, July 15 2014 6:00 a.m. MDT

“It's unfortunate, but it happens more than you could imagine,” she said. “I often have to muscle my way (into discussions, decisions, etc.), but can always hold my own once I get up to bat. I can give people reasons to believe me once I get in.”

Clark said to get more females into STEM education, the process should start early and be broad-based but focused.

“We need kids in robotics because it’s a good way to get young people interested in computers and technology. We need them playing chess because it’s a good way to understand how strategy works and to get their brains (working),” she said. “We need them to do music because it’s very math-driven. (It’s) exposing them to lots of interesting wonderful things that will help their brain do better in science, technology, programming and math.”

She said the reality is that if (kids) get jobs in science, technology, engineering and math, they will get better jobs.

“There are not enough students out there who have those skills, so there are more jobs than people to fill them,” Clark said.

She also noted that young people today are “digital natives” who have grown up using technology and multitasking while doing homework. Those students, particularly females, could have a major impact on the future as leaders in STEM, but they should also be versatile and well-rounded.

Nalini Nadkarni

Nalini Nadkarni, 59, teaches biology at the University of Utah. She is also the director of the U.’s Center for Science and Mathematics Education. She received her bachelor’s degree in biology at Brown University and her doctorate in forest ecology from the University of Washington.

A mother of two children and daughter of a scientist father who emigrated from India, Nadkarni admitted that her road to success in her chosen career could have been less difficult if she would had been exposed to more females in her workplace.

“(Had I seen) some role models of older women faculty who had kids and who were working at the lab, it probably would have made my pathway easier,” she said. Instead, she navigated her own path.

“The challenge that comes with being a woman or a minority in any field is … there is a bit more of a subtle block from not being exposed to others who are like you,” Nadkarni said. Not having someone to observe or receive mentoring from can make navigating a new environment especially difficult.

While she said she never felt any “direct prejudice” due to her gender or ethnicity, she said her self-confidence was impacted.

“If you don’t see people like yourself in those upper-level positions, it’s just harder to see yourself there,” Nadkarni explained. “I find it important for me as a woman and as a brown woman to place myself in front of (female) students, to talk to them and have interactions with them so that they allow themselves to see themselves in the position that I am. There is no substitute for that.”

She said that as more people become aware of women in STEM positions, attitudes will change and opportunities will be more available for young women to pursue.

She also said that the process must begin in elementary school where teachers, parents and others of influence must instill in both boys and girls the confidence that they can do math and science and deal with technology.

Some local school districts are implementing such strategies to address and encourage STEM education, particularly with young girls.

Hollie Pettersson, director of evidence-based learning for Canyons School District, said among the keys to promoting more young people is to tout the benefits of STEM learning and dispel the myths that persist about girls and STEM education.

For instance, one myth is that female students are not high achievers in math and science, and that girls are verbal while boys are analytical.

According to the American Association of University Women, high school female and male students perform equally well in math and science. Specifically, females in high school earn more math and science credits than males, and female grade point averages, aggregated across math and science classes, are higher than those of males.

Pettersson, who holds a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Utah, said that outdated stereotypes and feelings of inadequacy can hold girls back academically. Research showed that the stereotype that girls are not as good as boys in math can have negative consequences, she said.

“When girls know or are made aware of this stereotype, they perform much more poorly than boys,” she said. “However, when they are told that boys and girls perform equally well on a test, there is no gender difference.”

The research indicated that it is possible that girls are internalizing this stereotype and talking themselves out of achieving in math and science when, in reality, they are doing just as well or better than boys, she said.

“When it comes to academic skills, success breeds success, so keeping students moving forward in their math and science skills is key,” she said. “Additionally, most learning is language-mediated, therefore, students need to be able to talk about, write about and read about STEM in many aspects of their daily life.”

Email: jlee@deseretnews.com

Twitter: JasenLee1

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