Question of the Week: August 6, 2014

Aug 5, 2014

It is already known that there is a great need for more women in the STEM communities. It now seems there is an overall need in the STEM communities. How do you think we can solve this undermanned crisis;  how can we engage younger students in science and encourage them into careers in STEM? The best suggestion gets a copy of An Appetite for Wonder, by Richard Dawkins.

86 comments on “Question of the Week: August 6, 2014

  • Why is this important? If women want to enter those communities, they are free to do so. They already comprise more than 50% of University places. My professional organization is forever pushing for more women in engineering and the geosciences but ignore the appallingly high drop-out rate of male school students which needs to be urgently addressed.

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  • 2
    Nicholas says:

    I am currently a 19 year old male college student and I am heavily interested in science. Stem cells have always fascinated me and it would be awesome to study that. However I have no idea what the right steps would be to do so.

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  • Watching my 10 year old son’s journey in soccer, winning numerous tournaments because of his devotion and thrilled by it – no doubt in my mind that a similar level of endeavor for “STEM” clubs such as the soccer club he attends 4 days a week with weekly competitions culminating in bi/tri-annual tournaments (2 national tournaments to date) would skyrocket abilities of elementary school aged kids (and middle schools which still don’t have strong STEM programs). Soccer club 2- 4 days a week since he’s been in Kindergarden! with weekly competitions HE loves and can’t wait to play – AND all his friends are there. I am very sure of this model applied to STEM – the schools are either broken or way too bureaucratic to respond to the challenge…. and as a female STEM computer engineer/adjunct professor looking for work, would love to help make this come about!
    Hire me!

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  • When you ask young people what they want to do ‘when they grow up’, you get the classic answers (doctor, teacher, firefighter, police officer, etc). Those professions are the ones we know of most because of their visibility. But when you ask young people what an engineer is, they don’t have a clue.

    So, basically, my answer is this: we need to sell those careers better, inform people about what STEM careers are like. And why not get rid of a few doctor/police/laywer TV shows and make some more about mathematicians (‘Numb3rs’), geneticists (‘Regenesis’), engineers, chemists, etc.

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  • 6
    Denver Devils says:

    Just this week, I wandered into Barnes and Noble to browse the Science section in considering a mid-life career track change. I have two B.A.’s and an M.A., with a work history consisting of various administrative positions, some more glorified than others. These positions did not require expert knowledge or skills, just motivation for “professional development”, being a reliable employee and learning the workplace SOPs. Well, reviewing science texts reminded me one needs the ability to think abstractly, being highly comfortable with numbers and equations. Duh! Even though I have now been exposed to science popularizers like Richard Dawkins and Neil de Grasse Tyson in the secular world and find their information breathtaking, I was discouraged at the prospect of starting over with a science education (and more student loans).

    So what would engage younger students in STEM? I think what might have helped me as an over-achieving high school student who nonetheless passed over or struggled through Chemistry, Physics, and Calculus would be mentoring. Teachers are already stretched to the breaking point. Why not make it a requirement of STEM college degrees to mentor high school students? Say a year-long practicum for academic credit. And yes, especially encouraging females in these male-dominated fields is still VERY much needed.

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  • Being excited about soccer, for young boys and girls, is all about the thrill of the game. It’s about fulfilling children’s need for accomplishment, winning, etc. The more competitive a child is, the bigger his appetite for that type of activity (mainly sports) will be.

    How could a science club get those kids equally excited?

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  • STEM fields
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    STEM is an acronym referring to the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The term is typically used in the USA when addressing education policy and curriculum choices in schools from k-12 through college to improve competitiveness in technology development. It has implications for workforce development, national security concerns and immigration policy.

    MINT (mathematics, information sciences, natural sciences, and technology) has a similar meaning.

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  • 9
    Elizabethe says:

    I’m an undergraduate Biology student, but I started out as a Music student. From my perspective a huge step to take when addressing this crisis would be to start with challenging the “Arts vs Science” mindset and structure of K-12 education. I know it’s been said and repeated and repeated again, but I’m not trying to make the argument “from the Arts side” that the Arts are “just as important” or “need to be saved” or whatever (I agree that they’re important in fostering creative thinking, providing an outlet for students with struggles, and so much more… And I feel the pain when they are cut, but I also understand that literacy in STEM is first and foremost what produces functioning, skeptical and active world-changers). I’m trying to make the argument “from the science side” that there shouldn’t be sides. Throughout my education, I was constantly being forced to choose between advanced STEM courses and Arts courses: I couldn’t be in Jazz Band AND AP Calculus. And that divide just reinforced in me the idea that I couldn’t have both in life and that it was a major decision that I had to make between the Arts and the Sciences. It wasn’t until my junior year of undergrad that I realized I could have both. Now I have all the creative thinking skills and great things I learned from my education in the Arts and am able to apply them to my education in the Sciences. Since switching majors I’ve consistently been at the top of my classes and after countless conversations with professors, we’ve agreed that it’s not just because I’m a couple of years older than the other Biology majors. It’s because of my background in the Arts.

    Of course, the overall goal could similarly be achieved by rethinking what a STEM classroom looks like by involving more abstract learning experiences including more problem-solving and hands-on activities and that is being done in places and is very exciting. But I think there will always be a level of creative and emotional development that is exclusive to the Arts. My education has allowed me to learn in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of environments. I approach the material at a different angle than just “what is the right answer?” and it is the creative mindset that I gained from my abstract learning experiences in the Arts that allow me to do that. And what makes it so much more fun is that I can see all the beauty and art that is actually in science and appreciate it that much more.

    So I think in order for students to be encouraged to consider careers in STEM, they need to have an open education that doesn’t force them to decide between their interests, but instead encourages them to make transfers of knowledge between the subjects they’re studying and involves them in discussions on the cutting edge stuff.

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  • Instructors can:

    Encourage science students to inspire others. For example, maybe guide them as they maintain a science blog/website/video channel. Allow them to claim ownership of their own work by providing plenty of opportunities for them to design their own or modify in-class experiments. Encourage them to communicate these results to others through different media and not just through a formal lab report write-up.

    Emphasize the philosophy of science rather than emphasizing just the content (Notice I didn’t say omit content!). Science class should emphasize experimental design, critical-thinking, and the reliability of scientific theories. Not just require you to memorize organelles or bones. Get a poster for that.

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  • At the moment in the UK we have a weird situation that a lot of the girls who enter STEM courses at university come from all girls schools. So some research into what puts them off in mixed schools would be a start. Also here are still some problems for women in tech industries just by virtue of being women.

    Which seriously need addressing. Tho things are improving all the time.

    Also more girls seem to enter the STEM industries from all girls schools.

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  • Not sure you need to change content or teaching method what you do need to change is image.

    At A level fewer girls take all STEM subjects compared with boys. BUT in 2012, figures show they achieved, on average, higher grades than boys. Break it down further and you see that a lot of girls that do take physics come from all girl schools. So what is taught is fine. But in an all girls school the pictures for A level physics will be all girls.

    Change the image of the subject and you will attract more in. Just having pictures of at least one girl doing A level physics in the prospectus for starters. Careers talks that point out the earning potential as well. STEM is struggling it can’t afford to be unattractive to anyone.

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  • And one tip from a teacher friend – in science between the ages of 14 and 16, never pair boy and girl for any work at all. Girls compete fiercely with each other but take a back seat with boys. Recognise those hormones, and see the girls do far better.

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  • Nicholas.

    One word – Internship.

    Research different opportunities online and apply for the ones you like. Consider asking the science faculty at your school for help.

    Another thing – Talk to any instructors at your school who are doing interesting research. They may invite you into their lab as a lab assistant during the school year for class credit.

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  • My daughter is in a “STEM” program in her high school which is a rural Florida school. The original grant came from President Obama and the Department of Education that had a grant program to establish STEM programs in rural American schools. For the last three years, she has attended one-day, hands-on seminars sponsored by Florida colleges and universities. Each seminar has a different focus– engineering, forensic science, robotics, etc. The program also provides for week long summer emersion programs at various colleges and universities– paid for by the grant. Last summer, as a junior, she was able to attend a highly respected week long emersion “science camp” at the University of Florida headed by Professors where the students participate in actual research projects in all science fields from physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, and math. It was fabulous and fully paid for by the grant. The entire group included students from all of the rural high schools from around Florida and six to eight students from each high school get to attend the summer science camps and as many students who want to attend the day long seminars that are conducted throughout the school year.

    Now, how to get more students interested in STEM? First, understand that we cannot change the schools themselves. Too much politics and too much entrenchment in traditions. Thus, I think it would be great to organize a nationwide network of grants to fund similar programs for younger students. Schools are desperate for academically oriented field trips to local colleges that can put on one day science camps– making science fun and relevant. Locally, some of the local physicians have started a program on their own working with our local community college. The program actually sounds wonderful and so much fun I wish I could go. I could get more details for those who might be interested. Even in rural parts of the country, there are resources…

    In our part of Florida, we have the Archbold Biological Station that is a world class research facility studying the Lake Wales Ridge and the indigenous Scrub Jay population among many other things. This summer my daughter interned there for four weeks and loved every minute! In our region we also have a Great Ape Sanctuary and not far away other research opportunities with MOTE Marine, etc. It’s really a question of getting a camp or seminar “template” that can be used to establish programs in any environment.

    As parents unhappy with the local school system, we organized and got adopted an IB Program and push hard for an expansion of AP classes and Dual Enrollment courses at the local community college which has a new science building with state of the art labs. There is no reason that this model cannot be duplicated everywhere in the country. We need leadership, organization, and a funding source (even though this entire program doesn’t actually require a lot of money). I think that parents and school districts will get on board and these programs can extend into middle and elementary schools. The world of the universe is so fabulous, we only need to find an opportunity to share it with children… they will take it from there.

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  • “Throughout my education, I was constantly being forced to choose between advanced STEM courses and Arts courses: I couldn’t be in Jazz Band AND AP Calculus.’

    You don’t specifically why you couldn’t be in both; is it because the Powers-That-Be just couldn’t believe that a student would want to do both? 😉

    Or, was it a matter of a scheduling conflict? If so, what would you have proposed be done to remedy the problem? Into every pedagogical life some schedule conflict must fall.

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  • “Now, how to get more students interested in STEM? First, understand that we cannot change the schools themselves. Too much politics and too much entrenchment in traditions.’

    When you say “change the schools,” and say “entrenchment in traditions,” are you referring to teachers?
    Or to young-Earth creationist-laden, scientifically-illiterate school boards?

    I submit that one is obligated just as much – if not more – to reflect on how to change the entrenched traditions and collective quasi-Philistine mindset of popular American culture. (Re: Richard Hofstadter’s “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” and Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason,” the title surely taken from Thomas Paine’s “The Age of Reason.”) Depending on ones source, 20% (Jacoby) to 50% (Lawrence Krauss) of American adults miss the following question on science literacy surveys: “T or F: the Earth goes around the sun and takes a year to do it.”

    Also, as regards persuading students to enter STEM field, it won’t do for Romneyesque undergraduate English or Business majors/MBA-JD corporate business-/venture capitalist-/billionaire hedge fund manager-types (who themselves declined to enter STEM fields) to presume to persuade students to enter STEM fields, considering as they do STEM-types to be their handmaidens and mere human “resources” and “capital.” And, if a student says that s/he wants to go into Business, and not STEM, so as to make the big bucks, how does one propose to persuade her/him otherwise?

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  • I think that an after school science program for girls would be a good idea. Research has shown that some girls– especially in Latino cultures, actually– feel intimidated working alongside boys. Many girls are afraid of answering a question in class unless they are 100% sure that the answer is right. I don’t know how much of this is cultural or how much of it is simply an instinctive reaction to working alongside a group of people whose members are bigger. There are, of course, some boys who will ridicule the girls if the answer is wrong. Probably not most, but imagine the captain of the football team, for example, making fun of a girl for getting the wrong answer in class. An all-girls’ after school science program would help girls learn about science without the pressure of grades and the scrutiny of the boys. Then, perhaps, they would be more confident in class.

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  • @InYourFaceNewYorker.
    Your idea seems to hold promise, though I’m afraid the girls may feel ‘punished’ by the need to stay after school.
    I do think this notion could be expanded, particularly by taking into account the comments of Alice (above). What if girls were separated for Maths and science in their junior years? During my kids’ high school years a separate English class was run for boys, as they were underperforming in this subject. I don’t know whether these separate classes are still run. I suppose it depends of the success or not of the program.
    My daughter attended a Maths and science club before school when she was in years seven and eight. These were extremely popular as the classes were only available to very good students.

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  • Well they wouldn’t be forced to stay after school, but it would be optional. I also think there should be single-sex options for classes, not something imposed. The kids could decide whether or not they would prefer to be in a single-sex class. I wouldn’t have, but others might.

    I still wonder how much of this is cultural. I used to talk to a guy in Finland who I met over the Internet. He said that Finnish society is more egalitarian and more assertive. He also said most of the “math heads” he knew were girls. Of course, that could just be his perception.

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  • Square pegs and round pegs.

    I have always loved my science from as long as I can remember. I can remember holding caterpillars in my hand and looking at their legs. Putting a snail on the outside of my bedroom window then running inside and watching it slide up the glass. I can recall running home from primary school because we lived a long way away, so that I could watch Professor Julius Sumner Miller’s show, Why Is It So.” See here. Inspirational stuff.

    I was always a B plus student. I never studied which cost me dearly in later life. I passed every exam through high school by scanning the books the night before. I loved the science subjects, physics, maths, chemistry. I can remember asking the physics teacher one day about Einstein’s theory of relativity, and the enthusiasm with which the teacher stopped the subject of the class, and spoke about relativity for the rest of the lesson. Trains shrinking!!! I can recall most of the remaining 40 kids in the class giving me a hard time for asking the question.

    Maths is the DNA of science. If you can’t do the maths, you can’t do the science. I was Ok’ish at maths, but not to the level required to do science at uni. I could then, and can now understand the “Executive Summary” on almost any science I read about, but there is no way that I can follow the maths.

    Maybe if I studied harder, I might have made it, but I was a free range kid in the Murray Mallee of Australia and had far more fun things to do than study. If it was called a sport, I played it. If you could jump off it, I jumped. If it could be climbed, I climbed it. And later in high school, when evolution kicked in, if it was female, I chased it. Studying at school was way down my list.

    The point of all this preamble, is that I was an almost square peg, but I didn’t fit in the exactly square hole. When I read about programs to increase STEM (I hate acronyms and thank you OneMoreSecret for defining the term above. Science. Technology. Engineering. Maths.) I worry about forcing oval pegs into round holes. “We need more STEM. Let’s push STEM harder.”

    Yes, we need more people on the planet that understand Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. These are, or will be the rational people who should be making the decisions about our future, instead of the free market ideologues and the religiously blinded. But how do we find these people early enough, then maintain contact, and encourage their progress in these fields. Quota’s terrify me. YOU WILL THINK THIS VWAY…

    I sit with my grandsons watching TV at times and there isn’t a kids’ Prof Julius Sumner Miller today. I still do some of his party tricks like boiling some water in a can, then putting the lid on and slowly watching the atmosphere crush the can. My 3.5 year old grandson is now counting by 10’s and has seen a meniscus.

    We desperately need STEM people but we also need every person on the planet to have a basic understanding of the scientific process. We all need a STEM certificate. The ability to assess evidence and come to rational conclusions. We need people who will laugh at climate change deniers and respectfully decline religious motivated politics. STEM is not just for those that can do it, it is for every homo sapiens on the planet.

    My wife, who is a primary teacher, was given a fridge magnet which said, “To a Great Teacher. Better than a thousand days of study is one day with a great teacher.” Japanese proverb. I think that valuing education. Funding it. Encouraging the best and brightest to become teachers and pay them accordingly, may solve the STEM question without quotas.

    I’ve used my understanding of science, technology, engineering and maths all my life to great advantage, more from a hands on perspective, than a mathematical understanding. I developed a technique using reflected light to photograph fingerprints on oily surfaces, which couldn’t be developed with powders. I despair when in conversation, I hear people talking absolute rubbish that basic sciences disposes of in a second. So yes STEM. But maybe a few oval holes and oval pegs.

    p.s. Nitya and Alice. My teacher wife has shown me quality research that says that if you separate boys and girls in early teens for science and maths classes, the girls and boys both do far better. The girls can achieve without being stereotyped, and the boys can achieve, because there is no focus for their evolutionary disabilities.

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  • Thank you for reminding me of Julius Sumner Miller. I use his catch cry ” why is it so?” to this day. There is a role model today in Karl Kruszelnicki ( aka Dr Karl). His books were mandatory Xmas stocking stuffers in our house. Adam Spencer fills the bill with older teens, as he’s perceived as being ‘hip’.

    I can understand why segregated Boys and Girls schools outperform their co-ed counterparts even though I don’t really agree in principle. I attended a girls’ school and we were mercifully free from any discriminatory attitudes regarding success or otherwise in the fields of Maths and science. We were also free to put up our hand and answer questions.

    The first time I encountered an attitude of disdain for being so outspoken was at a church fellowship group I attended in my teens; the PFA. I clearly recall being spoken over by a male in the group. This had never happened to me in my life! These were the years when I tried valiantly to become a believer. It was very difficult and I finally gave up, realising the it was just ‘not so’.

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  • I can understand why segregated Boys and Girls schools outperform their co-ed counterparts even though I don’t really agree in principle.

    I disagree as well, but sadly, in our teen age years, there are very few who can apply mature intellectual rigour and override millions of years of evolution. I still can’t do it all of the time even though I know I should. So if the solution of occasional segregation works, then I would encourage it.

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  • One of our daughters is passionate about science, and after tenacious study since the age of about thirteen, and gaining a place at Imperial College London to read Biochemistry, she is now, aged twenty three, working as a biophysics research assistant at the Sir William Dunn Pathology facility in the Science Faculty of Oxford university.

    Also, out of two hundred applications for fifty places, she was the only student at Imperial to win a two month secondment to the Karolinska Institute, and she was awarded an Erasmus Scholarship to study in Strasbourg for a year.

    Her sister, who achieved the very same A levels in Chemistry, Biology, Maths and Further Maths, and gained a place at Trinity College Cambridge to read Life Sciences , lost her interest in science, and is now planning to go on an arts foundation course to become a designer.

    To work in any of the STEM communities you have to have more than just the native ability, there has to be passion too, and the willingness to work extremely hard for a very long time indeed.

    But even then, although you can lead them there, you cannot make them drink.

    A generation or two ago it would have applied, but now, I think It’s just a silly question.

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  • 30
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    Forgive me for saying so but I think you’re being too modest. If your daughters are where they are today, you must have done something right. Looking back at my own experience in my family environment when I was young, it’s clear to me today that these things rest on small, apparently innocuous details.

    While growing up and especially in one’s teen years, a single bad decision can completely throw one’s life off track. And it happens so easily, without fanfare, without warning. By the time one becomes aware of it, it’s already too late. Parents have the responsibility to intervene and do everything they can to prevent that from happening but they don’t always succeed for a variety of reasons.

    Also, we mustn’t forget that good parents also deserve praise as much for the things they refrain from doing as the things they do. Just refraining to be impatient or mocking or narrow-minded at a crucial moment in the developmental stage of a child can make all the difference in the world.

    Academically and socially successful children are an indubitable sign of good parenting. I think that all good parents deserve a medal. So I don’t care what you say, you DO deserve some of that praise.

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  • A stringent review of the efficacy of an outdated curriculum would go a long way towards alleviating this problem. From the perspective of a former educator, science and mathematics are being taught to pupils in the most bland, unimaginative and tedious manner imaginable, at lest in the US anyway. Science and mathematics education has suffered greatly from an overemphasis on standardized testing. My former students hated those subjects precisely because of the manner in which those subjects were being taught.

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  • 33
    christian says:

    First off I am a Norwegian guy who are embarking on my last year of my masters degree in history, so before I try to give my 2 cents be warned that 1) I am not very good at Math or hard Sciences and 2) Since English is my second Language, there might be some butchering up of the English Language. I am sorry in advance.

    I understand it to be two questions:

    How to get more kids/Young People in general into STEM Fields?
    How to get more Girls into STEM Fields?

    To start somewhere I can use myself as an example. I have never been really into what constitutes the STEM Fields to be honest, except that as a 6-8 year old kid I was into dinosaurs and tried to digg after dinosaur bones on the playground( With no success obviously ). When I was 13-15 I found Science, Math and technical stuff to be rather boring and found artsy and political/historical classes and subjects to be more fun. And in my first year of high -School I flunked in both Math and science( + german and economics btw ), the remainder of my high-school years( I had to go for 4 years because of my failure in the first year ) I barely was able to pass Math and science. After high-school I was very happy to never have to bother With science and Math( except basic Math ) again. After some years I started to study history and was content With that( and still am ), but I knew after a while that there where better job prospects in STEM Fields and that( according to the media ) they where also more usefull for the society at large. I shrugged it off With the explination that someone like me could no become a STEM guy because my brained was simply not wired that way. In recent years though I have followed Dawkins debates With creationist and trough that gotten more apreciative towards hard science(and especially the evolution theory offcoruse ). Also wit the re-creation of the Cosmos series I got even more excited about the knowledge contained in science and it made me wish I had payed a little more attention in highs School’s Sciences classes.
    The reason for this long winded exobition of my encounter With science and Math as a kid and teenager is that
    I think my experiences maybe can shed some light on what the problem is, the problem being why doesnt more kids/People join the ranks of STEM guys and gals. Firstly I think what was lacking when I grew up was something like Cosmos( I know the old show existed, but I never saw it ). Something like that is great for sparking a lust for science among teens. As a teen I loved fantasy books and historical literatur and what Cosmos or something similar are able to do is to take alot of Scientific knowledge and put it in a easy to understand historical narrative.( As a graduate student in history I especially appreciate that ). Offcourse a show like that cant make People literate in Math and the inner workings of the respected science Fields, but atleast it can spark an interrest in science. When it comes to Math and science literacy I think the only solution is more and better Math and science education from the start of School. One problem I had With Math was that I never learned everything properly, meaning that there where always something within algebra, geometry etc that I didnt know 100% before the class moved on to the Next subject. It meant I was always deficient in Math every year up to high School, but it was first in high School I paid the price. Never truly mastering a subject kills any motivation. I think this experience is true for many and ensuring that every pupil knows the ins and out of a particular area of Math before you og on to the next area is probably one way to improve Math literacy.
    When it comes to phsyics, chemistry and biology, I was not amazed in high School because they where presented in a way i Guess motivates People With a more technical/practical bent than me. Electronics Experiments are not fun for everyone. Again perhaps a more historical approach would be a good way to start for us who arent that tecnichal, and after Learning how all these 3 Fields are tied togheter and how it all goes back to the big bang( as far as scientist know today ), would have spoken to me at that age and would hopefully made it more likely for me to take an interrest in the subject, when we got to Learning the more “dry” and difficult stuff. In conclusion regarding question 1: I think it can be summarized in 3 Points:

    Give children from when they start at School more hours per week in Math and science.
    Rather than starting from the individual pieces of the subjects( let say an atom or an cell ), rather start With the Whole and work from there in towards the more particular parts. ( again the atom or an cell ).
    Recognize that children are individuals that are triggered by different Things. Some are more practically/technically oriented, while others are more (hi)story oriented.

    Offcourse this will cost Money, so higher taxes and more Money to the Public School system are in order.

    Regarding the second problem that “why are so few Girls going into STEM Fields?” I think that has alot to do With gender roles and wich role models Girls are presented as kids. Atleast LEGO are starting With a female-scientist serier.

    I will end this With saying that when it comes to engineering and the more practical Fields, not everyone is wired towards that and therefor the scream lately for that everyone should become an engineer is futile and a bit patronizing for us in the humanities and the social-sciences. We might not build bridges and Spaceships, but I will argue the knowledge we uphold and creates are very important if one wants a human, progressive and democratic society.

    Best regards
    Christian Florelius.

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  • My suggestion is to encourage the educational community to implement/develop training in how to program/code at the youngest possible age. I think it is a great way to get them into logical thinking.

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  • 35
    Brittney says:

    In my experience we are already starting to see this change. This past winter I went on several interviews for graduate programs in molecular biology and noticed that almost 75% of my fellow applicants and the current graduate students were female while only 25% of the professors were female. Of course, not every field in STEM is seeing this new ratio. Treating children and adolescents equally and ditching what our society view as appropriate for girls vs. boys would be a step towards changing this. There are still remnants of our society that discourage females from pursing intellectually challenging fields. I have encountered more than one male science professor who thought it was ‘cute’ that a female was taking an advanced science course and treated women as if they lacked the capacity to understand.

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  • I hope that you’ll please indulge me mods:

    NearlyNakedApe, I appreciate your comments, and thinking back I did provide nudges along the way, especially when it came to the time when they had to make the invidious choice between the arts and sciences for their four A level subjects.

    They were stuck for choice, because they played the cello and violin with The Hertfordshire Schools Youth Orchestra, painted and drew, and danced with the National Youth Ballet between the ages of eight and sixteen.

    So, I advised them that what ever else they did, to do maths and further maths, because without them they couldn’t do science, and they could always switch back to the arts later if they wanted to ; one of them is now doing precisely that.

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  • Stafford Gordon

    Your post brought up the nature/nurture debate. What would it be in your opinion, 50/50, 75/25, 25/75, 90/10, 10/90? I’m currently reading a book about twins accidently switched at birth (surprisingly few documented cases), and the evidence suggests that the role of ‘nature’ is much more profound than suspected.
    It matters not, you had a hand in the input of both aspects, so you should be proud.

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  • There has to be some motivation prompting one to WANT to code. What if a kid prefers to read Dawkins, Hitchens, Grayling, Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Emerson, Thoreau, Frost, Longfellow, Kipling, Omar Khayyam, etc., or to master the quadratic equation or trigonometry or calculus? Are all middle schoolers into games? Is there not at least one student who does NOT view playing a computer game as a carrot or reward for doing assignments?

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  • Just an observation, but the ‘questions of the week’seem to be designed to :
    1. Attract more members
    2. Increase the number of females to the site
    Would I be correct in making that assumption? It seems to be doing the trick because I was beginning to feel very lonely out there. There are many more comments from female members it seems, though not many responding to this question so far.

    Edit: Oops! Just checked. Lots of comments by females. Sorry ladies! 🙂

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  • 41
    Martin says:

    Our best chance of enrolling women (and men) in STEM curricula and careers is to expose young children to the wonder of the things, the wonder of the world about them. Curiosity must be valued and encouraged along with providing the age-appropriate tools and methods that children can use to satisfy their curiosity – to find fact-based answers. At the same time, these children will learn to live a data/reason based life rather than a belief-based one. Hopefully positive feedback will increase the numbers of reason-based folks and automatically fill the gaps in STEM opportunities. The hard part is getting the process started in the face of belief-based parents.

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  • Very simple answer… follow the example of the great countries who do not charge ridiculous tuitions for college/university. I cannot go to school because I cannot afford it. I can only dream of a career in science.

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  • Show me the MONEY! Regardless of gender the ‘hard sciences’ fare badly compared to Law, Politics, Management and many other (what I consider) less-productive professions.

    Until STEM professionals are rewarded as well as others there is a huge disincentive in pursuing demanding and difficult academic courses. In my years at university the arts and social sciences were so mush easier… and more time for partying!

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  • I honestly think that the arts have a huge role to play here. Instead of withdrawing into ever more esoteric and niche markets of expression / exploration, artists should be collaborating with experts from STEM fields to help make the concepts they deal with (some of which are extremely difficult to grasp) easier to digest / break down / represent graphically.

    People avoid STEM disciplines because frankly, they have no idea what STEM disciplines are talking about. When is the last time you felt passionate about something you couldn’t understand?

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  • I agree that everyone can do it, but that not everyone has the required motivation and support to truly succeed in STEM. Like you, I was a scientific and inquisitive mind stuck in a school system that did not ask enough of me (A grades without ever having to open a book until college). I became lazy and consequently, long story short, a lot of potential was wasted.

    Motivation is definitely one of the answers here. Yes, everyone should learn sciences. Yes, everyone will benefit from knowing reality better. But what will make people realise that? This guy gets it:

    At the end of the experiment, students understand that it is their ignorance of the laws of physics that made them fear for their teacher’s life. That was foolish: he never was in any real danger. Professor Lewin makes his students realise that they NEED to learn in order not to be fooled that way again, he makes them understand the power that comes with knowledge!

    There are many ways to motivate people to go for a career in STEM, but I agree that teachers can make a huge difference. Better education, of course, is the best way to make students reach their full potential.

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  • If you haven’t already done so read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. It’s one of the best general science books I’ve ever read and I think would be a great start for someone wanting to go into biology. I also recommend Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers although those papers aren’t all that relevant to stem cell research and are more for people like me who are interested in behavioral and cognition issues but if you are looking to get a feel for some of the controversies and issues in biology that’s a good place to start. Plus I just think Trivers is awesome, brilliant and also has a very wry sense of humor in an otherwise very serious collection.

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  • The government could start by banning messages on the media that regard science as nerdy, ridiculous and boring as they ban bad words, sex and extreme violence on shows for kids and teens (and, if you’ve seen TV, there are a lot of these messages).
    On the other hand, they could force all TV stations to broadcast cultural/scientific content; it was such a law that made Beakman’s World possible. But they should closely supervise this content, because not everything that is supposed to be cultural/scientific on TV actually is.
    These solutions are cheaper and more objective than raising the education level in schools.

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  • The power of the media is huge. I mentioned Beakman’s World because there are thousands of people in my country who are now scientists because of the impact that show had on them in their childhood. I think it’s the way to go, and we can pressure our legislators on this.

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  • A quick scan through the comments above suggests that – apart from one or two notable exceptions – there’s little reference to parental influence. A practical father will almost always engender in his children an interest in practical things, whilst an academic father will very likely bring up academic children. So the modern emphasis on academic achievement from the first day at school has largely discouraged practical skills amongst our young people. What a mistake that has turned out to be! Why do so few young lads now want to take mechanical things to pieces to see how they’re made? Why has Meccano died out? Why is it uncool to do woodwork and metalwork at school rather than media studies?

    Practical interest in physical things is the essence of science and technology; and mathematics should follow once its need and usefulness becomes apparent.

    A landmark point in my childhood was when my dad taught me how to solder two pieces of wire together when I was only 8 years old, and that was followed by the gift of a brilliant Ladybird Book entitled ‘Magnets, Bulbs and Batteries‘ which was packed with simple experiments with electricity but is now classed as a vintage publication! I wonder how many dads encourage that kind of simple experimentation in this Android age. The Raspberry Pi is definitely a good thing, but children need to be given even more basic interests than that in order to grasp the elementaries of technology. In my view practical parenting is vital to this question. Reliance on TV and school just doesn’t have the same impact as a sensitive and encouraging parent.

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  • Cumbria Smithy.

    This is a good point. If we are to believe media commentary, much of children’s leisure time is spent doing activities that have been outsourced to professional groups ( music lessons, dance, sports coaching). I think parents lack confidence in their capacity to pass on skills, more’s the pity. With greater affluence such lessons are affordable to the average person and IMO kids miss out on the opportunity to try (and fail), plus use their own creativity to solve problems.

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  • Thanks Nitya. Did you click on my link to the Amazon page advertising Magnets Bulbs and Batteries? I think it’s great to see a girl in the cover photo, as I felt I mentioned dads & lads a little too much in my comment, but even in the 1960s the practical stuff was for both sexes. Read the reviews of that book too; I’m not the only one to lament the demise of simple, back-to-basics physics!

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  • Nitya, it all depends on the individual child.

    But it’s vital that parents and teachers stimulate children in a wide range of activities and observe the results as closely as they can so that potential is recognized as early as possible.

    And it can happen in a number of ways; for example, when the girls said that they wanted to learn a musical instrument my wife delayed buying the requested cello and violin for a year to make sure their interest was genuine. She plays the viola, so in that case she was the role model.

    Fundamentally, take it one day at a time keeping your wits about you.

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  • Before crafting strategies to increase the number of students undertaking academic STEM studies, we should factor in two stubborn realities. (Note: The comments herein are confined to secondary education, largely pertinent to what we call grades 9 through 12 or age 13/14 to age 17/18).

    Most students find Math and science courses unpleasant, sometimes repellant because they lack the interest and/or the aptitude for the challenging subject matter. This is not to say that we should write off slow learners or late bloomers at the outset because of initial impressions. Ongoing opportunities, bolstered by motivational measures, individualized learning, tutoring and subsidies for low-income students, should always be on offer to allow individuals to enter STEM disciplines as they mature. Those who show decisively that they are not interested, should receive instruction in basic science and math literacy and then be allowed to go their own way in other disciplines (that in no way are hereby implied to be”inferior.”)

    The second stubborn reality involves tough decisions about funding. If we can form a social consensus that
    STEM education constitutes a compelling national interest, leaders and legislators at the national, state, and local levels will need to allocate more dollars from the pool of scarce tax dollars to the teaching of science and math. We should take care that such a consensus does not grant license to gut funding for the arts, humanities, and soft electives which also play an indispensible role in forming the holistically educated person. We must be willing to accept the unfortunate trade-off that increased funding for STEM instruction will come at expense of other educational or extra-curricular programs and therefor take pains to plan fairly.

    I will leave matters of curricula to experts in science education -how much time should be devoted to lab experiments, field trips, motivational presentations, computer literacy, “textbook” lectures, rote learning, and so forth. Instead I will comment on what I view as a major obstacle to expanding and intensifying STEM education among diverse student bodies.

    The central dilemma, it seems to me, is how to bring talented science teachers and talented science students together in the same classroom. Too often the two elite groups are isolated from each other. The great science teacher, who knows her subject and knows how to teach it, finds herself teaching a “required” physics class largely populated with dozing, distracted or disruptive students. She has a fair chance of finding one or several students inspired and engaged with the subject but such a low yield is hardly satisfying.

    Cutting to the chase, it might be helpful to open a discussion about creating something along the institutional order of “Stem Academies” or “STEM Academy Courses” either on an existing campuses and/or on separate campuses fortified with robust online resources.. The arrangement would bring centralized, focused, mission-oriented and permanent institutions into place ( while eliminating the hodge-podge of AP courses). The STEM institutions would be staffed by proven talented teachers or promising monitored teachers and student bodies carefully and flexibly screened on the following criteria: Interest – Aptitude – Motivation – Work Ethic – Achievement. Disadvanted students from minority and (especially) low-income households along with the “slow learner” students described above would NOT be disqualified for defects in any single criteria. As long as students demonstrate credible “promise” and cooperative behavior, they would have access to multiple opportunites and, yes, flexible accomodations for admission. Needless to say, due to limited space, admission committees would have to select and exclude certain applicants consistent with effective outcomes required by the mission.

    A quick observation about gender separate instruction. Such a system would be prohibitively expensive for a publically financed system because of the necessity to duplicate facilities, hours of instruction, staffing, etc. Concerns about male harassment, bullying, rudeness, crudeness, discouragement, silencing, brow-beating, domination or opression of female students that in any substantive way adversely affected their rights, dignity, expression or input in the educational process would be addressed through ongoing training which include students, faculty, staff, and parents always reinforcing the practice of zero tolerance. (Optimism might also reasonably observe that in STEM-intensive classrooms, there will be no dearth of brilliant high-achieving girls for boys to accept as colleagues and, in many cases, look up to as role models.)

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  • @Stafford Gordon and @Cumria Smithy
    Sorry that I’ve taken a while to get back to you. We’ve been travelling to regional New South Wales and this means 7 hours of driving. You would probably be in Aberdeen after such a long stint behind the wheel.
    Lego is still a popular ( gender neutral ) toy, though I haven’t seen Meccano for many a moon. I think these sorts of unstructured materials must be good for children with a technological bent. In the past children could pull things apart to see how they worked ( things like clocks), but now everything comes as a sealed unit so a lot of exploration must be stymied. Still, plenty of young people are drawn to engineering, so the urge to explore and create must still be in evidence. Not many girls are drawn to engineering unfortunately.
    Stafford, I really think your daughters are the exception rather than the rule. I think they would have achieved under any circumstances!
    On a personal note I can only add that both my kids started out in the sciences, my son doing medical science and daughter took on advanced science. My son stuck with it but my daughter changed direction mid-stream. Both my father and brother loved to pull things apart and put them back together again to see how they worked. And I loved to read. I don’t think this adds any insights to the Question of the Week but I hold by the old proverb, ‘as the twig is bent…..’

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  • When my son was young I used to sit with him and play with the large tub of Lego we had acquired over the years. I found it very revealing in the way we used this product. I would build houses for my little Lego ‘people’ and he would build forts and ‘bases’, spaceships and weaponry.

    The supply of Lego was usually augmented by packs with a specific end in mind….complete with directions. After the initial design had been followed, the pack was emptied into the non-specific tub. ( much more appreciated).

    My hope is that the ghastly pink and purple range of Lego never gains a foothold in the market. I hate the way that girls are corralled into the pink/purple corner of the toy section.

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  • One of the most effective I’ve personally been involved with is by holding “Space Day” presentations in local schools. I came up with a 1st through 6th grade curriculum of presentations to explain more about our solar system, the universe, and how they can grow up to participate. It only takes a couple hours per class each year, and I’ll never know if or who I managed to ‘nudge’ towards a STEM career, but I’ll never forget their enthusiastic questions during our Q&A sessions 🙂 You don’t have to be an astronaut (even if the kids are bound to think you are, lol), or work for NASA, all it takes is someone passionate about space exploration (or whatever your equivalent subject is), knows more about it than the students, and is willing to share that knowledge!

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  • @Melvin

    A quick observation about gender separate instruction. Such a system would be prohibitively expensive for a publically financed system because of the necessity to duplicate facilities, hours of instruction, staffing, etc. Concerns about male harassment, bullying, rudeness, crudeness, discouragement, silencing, brow-beating, domination or opression of female students that in any substantive way adversely affected their rights, dignity, expression or input in the educational process would be addressed through ongoing training which include students, faculty, staff, and parents always reinforcing the practice of zero tolerance. (Optimism might also reasonably observe that in STEM-intensive classrooms, there will be no dearth of brilliant high-achieving girls for boys to accept as colleagues and, in many cases, look up to as role models.)

    This need not be any more expensive. The model I had in mind was combined classes in most areas and segregation only in subjects that seem problematic. The facilities need not be duplicated, simply used at different times. The labs sit empty at various times of the day, so I would propose optimal use. It would be a problem of organisation in most cases, but classes are separated anyway, usually on the basis of ability.

    To my way of thinking, males and females need to get on. I don’t think you learn how to do this in segregated schools, even though this was my very own experience. In an ideal world teachers would be able to eliminate bullying in all it’s ugly manifestations. In the real world teachers have their limitations ( sometimes bullying as a means of control themselves). In years eleven and twelve these teenagers seem to have sorted themselves out and the girls do not appear to be subjected to too much unpleasantness …..from what I’ve seen anyway.

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  • Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics. I agree it should have been put in brackets after the first occurrence of the acronym.

    I also thought “undermanned” seemed strange for a description of a lack of women.


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  • To my way of thinking, males and females need to get on. I don’t think
    you learn how to do this in segregated schools, even though this was
    my very own experience.

    I think this is really important. Men and women need to learn to work with colleagues of both genders and to be in charge of or have in charge of them colleagues of the opposite gender. I see to many men who seem most comfortable in an all male environment.


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  • Nitya, I agree that our daughters would probably have succeeded no matter what the circumstances, and I’m inordinately proud of them, but I have to admit that I’m glad that period of my life is at an end, because it was bloody hard work.

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  • Yes. Even college students have difficulty finding internships in science. With the high cost of tuition, what is the likelihood that these students will need to settle for employment in an area that is not their college major?

    I know someone who is now doing graduate work. She nearly came to a standstill since colleges that she applied to did not have funding, nor a project to take her on. Finally, in the eleventh hour, one college received funding from a corporation and she was able to continue with graduate work. This young woman was at the top of her class both in high school and in her undergraduate work. I shutter to think what would have happened if their wasn’t any money available.

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  • The research on the success rates of girls who attended a female only high school has been in for quite some time. I learned this fact during my teacher training decades ago. Besides SES and family income, this is the surest way of aligning girls for positions of leadership, higher pay, and general success. If you want your daughters to do well in life – send them to an all girls school.

    Some research reveals that all girls schools are organized with cooperation and communication in mind. Group learning in which all girls participate is encouraged. The format resembles a circle in which leadership is shared or the leader is also part of a team in which all member contribute. Mixed sex schools tend to emphasize competition in which one top individual or small group rises to the top of the pyramid and other cascade downward. In situations like these, it is shown that females will step back and allow dominate male groups to take the lead. I recall hearing a situation in which baboon troups had alpha males who first fed on the food source (garbage) thus leaving scraps to others. When the food source became tainted and the alphas were killed off, the group was left more peaceful, more cooperative, the whole group was less stressed- doing more grooming…. I liken this to female dominated power structures – more individuals can finally recognize their strengths and abilities which were formerly quashed by pyramid power structures.

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  • Research has shown that girls will not reply unless they know the answer. (This is true for four and five year olds as well.) Girls usually will not guess an answer on the SAT which led the test creators to change the procedures. If a teacher asks a question and notices that only boys are raising their hand, they are taught to rephrase the question. It is a likely sign that no one knows the answer or did not understand what was being asked. Years ago, when I was a teacher, I tried this out on many occasions and found this to be true. Boys will compete to be called upon and never knew the answer.

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  • I’ve struggled for most of my life despite having lots of potential. Unfortunately, bad parenting usually equals lower social economic status. Good parents usually have many more options and experience on their hands.

    (I’m sure you did a great job. SC)

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  • I find the story about the accidental switch between a wealthy family and a single mother fascinating. The biological infant of the single mother raised by the wealthy family went on to be CEO/owner of a real estate firm. The biological infant of the wealthy parents raised by the single mother went on to be a truck driver.

    Nature surely is a strong determinant of our personality, but I only need to read school rankings to notice that the top schools have the highest SES.

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  • @ Nitya 5:49 pm

    very revealing in the way we used this product (Lego)

    Are you familiar with the assembly toy K’Nex. It is not gender neutral, in that most photos show boys/men with their creations (kits, or “free build”).

    Funny, there is a pink and purple Tinker Toy set for young girls. Yet they seem to outgrow interest?? This idea parallels an opinion piece stating that girls lose interest in science around 4-5 grade.

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  • Higher salaries. Parents want their children to be well-off financially and often push children towards career paths like law, medicine and finance for that reason.

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  • There is a project on YouTube channel KentStateBSN that is using Richard Dawkins’ book, The Magic of Reality: How we know what’s really true.
    Watch because it appears that someone is creating a vehicle for after school science or STEM clubs.

    Someone familiar with this project told me that scientists will be reading the sciences.
    Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish, is in a picture just before Chapter 8 begins.
    It so happens that the fish Dr. Shubin discovered is featured in Chapter 2 of this Dawkins book.
    If scientists like Dr. Shubin will be reading the sciences, it would seem that THAT particular science will be more interesting because it will have a face and enthusiastic personality about it, yes?

    furthermore, each reader will be sharing their work in a science field … Dr. Laura Taalman writes Sudoku books in addition to math and calculus textbooks, and engineers like Dick Moberg will share his SmartCity technology, which is a virtual intensive care unit from the point of contact with the patient to admission in a real hospital setting.

    i think that this project, as related to me, shows promise in getting middle school students and others to take more science and math classes.

    What do you think?

    Already, Ireland has mandated that every middle school student be required to have this Dawkins book … see The Guardian newspaper, September 26, 2013 “Magic of Reality”.+

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  • 75
    Rugilandavyi says:

    By exposing children to science at a tender age other than taking them to madras and Sunday school or whatever that is divine – inspired we can free their minds from irrational superstitious ideas and build them a well established capacity to think freely, rationally plus an excellent opportunity to work with problems in a scientific approach that always uncovers the best ways out that are also reasonable.
    By doing this youngsters will automatically develop an interest on questioning and reasoning what they observe hence automatically finding themselves aspiring for careers in the STEM fields let alone science all together.

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  • Start with the terribly sexist output of the Disney Channel and Cartoon Network. The otherwise excellent Phinneas and Ferb is appallingly 1950s in its portrayal of the sexes.

    US kids shows are generally the worst gender offenders whilst their adult shows increasingly flip the gender viewpoints and stereotyping. Though not science yet, Orange is the new Black, The Good Wife and Damages bode well for the future.

    With fun and inspiring narratives fed to us early enough, culture can turn on a dime. Kids tv show production is still stuck in the dark ages of being funded by advertising and the advertising is always for the easiest sell, go-with-the-flow, gendered pap. We need to find a model of very high quality program funding for kids like the TV that cable and streamed media seem to have. HBO and now Netflix may be the people to harangue about kids TV. Parents ought to be made to feel guilty that they get the good stuff.

    HBO kids.

    I also rather liked the idea of banning direct advertising towards kids….

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  • 77
    Anthony says:

    In many schools, advanced STEM courses and advanced (or niche) vocational and artistic courses are scheduled at the same time – intentionally – because of the common logic that “few (or no) people want to do both.”

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  • Lucio Aug 8, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    The government could start by banning messages on the media that regard science as nerdy, ridiculous and boring as they ban bad words, sex and extreme violence on shows for kids and teens (and, if you’ve seen TV, there are a lot of these messages).

    In the UK, TV channels are banned from transmitting sex and violence before 9pm. when young children are expected to be watching.

    I don’t think governments are capable of deciding what is scientific content or a positive image of science. After all we have AGW deniers, astrologers, homoeopathy fans, and some YECs in various governments.

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  • CumbriaSmithy Aug 8, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    A quick scan through the comments above suggests that – apart from one or two notable exceptions – there’s little reference to parental influence. A practical father will almost always engender in his children an interest in practical things, whilst an academic father will very likely bring up academic children.

    I would agree with you on this, but would take the matter further. The academic studies should be integrated with practical work.

    So the modern emphasis on academic achievement from the first day at school has largely discouraged practical skills amongst our young people. What a mistake that has turned out to be!

    Actually in the UK nursery and infant schools concentrate on building practical skills and activities with sand-pits and water troughs for measuring and conservation of volume, while numerous construction toys develop engineering and assembly skills.

    Why do so few young lads now want to take mechanical things to pieces to see how they’re made? Why has Meccano died out? Why is it uncool to do woodwork and metalwork at school rather than media studies?

    I would agree that pressure on older children to use time on academic subjects to the neglect or their practical connections, is detrimental, although science courses usually involve quite a lot of practical work.

    Practical interest in physical things is the essence of science and technology; and mathematics should follow once its need and usefulness becomes apparent.

    While the need for numbers and maths becomes apparent in practical subjects, they really should be built into the development work from the start at pre-school level – measuring and matching sizes and shapes.

    A landmark point in my childhood was when my dad taught me how to solder two pieces of wire together when I was only 8 years old, and that was followed by the gift of a brilliant Ladybird Book entitled ‘Magnets, Bulbs and Batteries‘ which was packed with simple experiments with electricity but is now classed as a vintage publication!

    An excellent book, which my children used along with a kit of parts to build illuminated and powered models.
    When my sons were 5 and 7, they fitted out a washing-machine box, as a “house/camp” – with wiring, switches, battery, lights, door bell, buzzers, fans (small electric motor with propeller) variable resistors, and series and parallel circuits.

    I wonder how many dads encourage that kind of simple experimentation in this Android age.

    These sorts of items should be made more readily available as reasonably priced kits. I had to go to an electronics supplier and buy the components individually.
    All my children, also learned, to draw pictures, write stories, use electronic music software, and put these files together into electronic on-screen books.

    One of them is now head of development at an IT company, writing programmes which analyse multi-million pound world-wide businesses.

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  • bonnie Aug 9, 2014 at 5:23 pm

    Lego [] gender neutral toy

    A few months ago, I dug out a couple of crates of old Duplo from the back of the garage – to hand down to my granddaughter. They need to start young! The crates of Lego will follow later!

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  • My high school, 95 seats per class in a rural 1958 Louisiana town, had a physics teacher that had us build devices for experiments, a chemistry teacher that did the same, and a biology teacher that proselytized against organic evolution at every opportunity but was so engaging and creative with experiments that it didn’t matter. This in a school where many students began primary school barefooted (poverty) and learning English as a second language (Cajun). Two of the three teachers were not certified – physics a predoctoral student at LSU and biology a med-school dropout. We also had a creative writing program. But only one principal and no councilors or other admin. Three of us went on to doctorates in a natural science – mine was biochemistry – about the same rate as our now cash-strapped and curricula-deficient high schools in one of the wealthiest mid-western communities in the USA. Seems to me the issue is simple, but will not resolve until we get professional administrators and business types out and give schools back to the teachers.

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  • Why on earth would we want more women to enter science? No, really. Why? Perhaps there are less women than men in science because they have more sense than men.

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