California Forum

It takes more than gadgets for girls to get interested in science and math

Pamela Clute, University of California, Riverside
Pamela Clute, University of California, Riverside

A decade ago, Harvard University President Larry Summers found out exactly how politically incorrect it is to compare the natural aptitudes of women and men when it comes to mathematics and science. Trying to provoke a debate, he dared to reference statistics that say “there are innate differences in men and women, which account for more men ending up at the top echelons of mathematics and science aptitude.”

Gender warfare ensued.

But after 40 years as a mathematics educator, I cannot help but notice that our nation still has too few women with careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. We can’t solve the problem if we don’t talk about it.

I have seen the natural curiosity and the talented minds of girls shut down. They give up on math and look for another subject that excites them or allows them to feel they are making a difference.

Women know this is true. Too many of us underperform, dislike or avoid these important subjects, and it risks not only our personal success and economic vitality, but the nation’s international competitiveness. Women make up half of the nation’s workforce, and we must find a way, as a society, as educational institutions, to do better.

Note to Los Angeles Unified teachers and administrators: It is not about the gadgets. An iPad at every desk alone is not going to develop the STEM capacity of young women, unless it comes with mentorship, encouragement and a social purpose to help other people or the world.

Girls need the community climate to build their self-confidence, to reassure them that they can do this. What they find instead is a society too quick to let them give up, sometimes a hostile environment within institutions of higher learning. My hope is that the iPads can be more than a gadget. We need software that allows collaboration, access to role models and mentors if we want girls to succeed.

Today, California is rolling out the Common Core State Standards and a new testing system. Simultaneously, the Next Generation of Science Standards and a new blueprint for STEM have appeared in public education. Generally, I’m encouraged by what I see: the integration of subject matter and the development of rational, logical and analytical thinking. But along with a good framework and an associated curriculum, our young women need mentors, men and women, encouraging them, showing them why, helping them develop confidence to persist.

Oh, you say, if the schools fail, just log on to the Khan Academy? Note to Salman Khan: Lessons on a chalkboard narrated by a disembodied voice may be practical and effective for some, but it is not enough to capture the attention of the average young woman, who is looking for social cues, for context, for relevance to her life or impact on the world. We know most girls begin school with a good attitude about mathematics and science, but by middle school, there is a sharp drop in interest, especially in mathematics.

Poor mathematics skills lead to poor science, technology and engineering performance. I would love to see and hear more women teaching and explaining difficult ideas in the Khan Academy. It is the relationships with teachers, mentors and parents that are the best predictor of success for women.

Today, women represent 59 percent of the nation’s college population, but only one-third choose to major in STEM fields. These are the fastest growing and best paying jobs, and women hold fewer than one-quarter of them. Lower representation of women in STEM means a lower economic productivity not only for them as individuals, but for the nation as a whole.

In just four years, there will be 1.2 million new job openings in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and a shortage of qualified applicants to fill them. We must cultivate girls to fill these workforce gaps.

Our quality of life depends on the productivity of skilled citizens and a steady stream of innovative products, ideas and services that can be marketed worldwide. We must start early in the education process, believing that women can be successful in STEM and provide them with high quality experiences that make knowledge interesting and relevant to inspire further learning.

My final note is to Larry Summers and to all who care about women and STEM: Despite the political fallout, please keep talking about this. Silence is not the answer. Have we made progress since that discussion originated 10 years ago, or was it all just heat rather than light?

Pamela Clute has spent 40 years teaching mathematics at the University of California, Riverside, and organizing outreach programs to thousands of students and teachers in Southern California.