Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Girls: stick to it!

As happens every year around this time, I returned to my daughter’s (now former) elementary school tonight to help with the science fair. When it was founded seven years ago it had less than 30 project, but this year it drew almost one third of the school with 150 projects — so big that they had to split it across two days. Tuesday was K-2 and Wednesday was 3-5.

After running the fair for three years, this year I just had to show up and lead a team of 11 volunteers to judge 26 3rd grade projects. As always, it was very gratifying to help these young kids out.

After all the prizes were handed out and all the pictures were taken, I was gobsmacked by the pattern: all the first place winners were girls. This was not a coincidence.

We hear* how girls don’t stand a chance in math/science/engineering education and careers. Programs like Girls Go Tech (the girl scouts) and Dare 2B Digital try to reach them in K-12 while the Anita Borg Institute and Society for Women Engineers try to support them once they’re grown ups.

And yet, here in the extreme southern suburbs of Silicon Valley, it’s girls winning the elementary school science fair. At my daughter’s middle school, girls are disproportionately represented in the most advanced math track.

At this age, girls have an advantage: they are more serious students, less fidgety, more compliant and likely to study. As judges, we saw the effect of these two factors, plus one more: they are more social and better at ease talking to people, which means they are more convincing when they explain what they did in the science fair project.

Sociability and communication skills are important for bench scientists or engineers, but not necessarily the most important skills. They are crucial for managers, sales and marketing types. So if Silicon Valley, California and the US are going to incubate more successful technology-based firms, we need these girls to stick to it and enter the tech company workforce.

In my own case, my middle schooler is debating between becoming an elementary school teacher (little kids are so cute) and an engineer. (She won’t be following her dad into computers: “Programming is boring: I liked the finished product, but that’s about it. I like making things.”) It will be a decade before we know for sure which one will win out.

* Actually, according to NSF statistics, women accounted for 50.5% of US undergraduate science and engineering degrees in 2006 , up from 39% two decades earlier. They are the majority in life sciences, social sciences and psychology. (Quelle surprise!) They are also a healthy 41-42% in physical sciences and earth sciences. The only areas where they are low are math/computer science (26.8%) and engineering (19.5%)

Photo of the 5th grade winner of the 2011 Simonds Science Fair courtesy of Nicole van der Hulst.

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