Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Speaking of Science: Girls are good at both math and reading. That explains why many leave STEM.

Speaking of Science
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🚀 Look out for a special edition of this newsletter on Saturday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

The "weeder" class got me. It nearly killed my college STEM dreams.

I didn't realize at the time that I was part of a phenomenon experienced by young women around the world. And new research is finally explaining why STEM-bound girls leave the STEM path so early.

In college, I was enrolled in the series of introductory courses that would prepare me for a career in medicine: biology, physics, biochemistry.

Everyone knew that biochemistry was the "weeder course." It was purposefully designed with rigorous testing and advanced math exercises. The course required intense study hours and, for most, extracurricular tutoring. Biochemistry weeded out those who couldn't hack it.

"About a fourth of you won't make it to the end of this course," I remember my professor saying. "It's hard, and that's the point!"

He shrugged as it to infer that weeder courses were about as certain as death and taxes.

Had social media existed, it would have been a tweetable moment to question — in a public way — intimidation in our universities. But it was 2003, my Nokia phone was mostly used for playing snake, and I truly got to wondering, despite having competent math skills, whether I would survive the gauntlet of chemical equations.

I didn't want to set myself up for failure. Besides, I had options.

I pivoted hard toward two courses I was excelling at: broadcast journalism and writing in journalism. I dropped biochemistry before the first exam. By the end the semester, I had switched to an English major.

Leaning toward courses where I was getting good grades made sense. And it made sense to my deans. A new study published Monday in Proceedings from the National Academic of Sciences suggests that teenage girls across 64 countries have a comparative advantage over boys in reading. And, like me, they use these reading skills as an exit door out of STEM career path.

The study shows that the math skills of boy and girls are almost equal. Math abilities don't explain any of the current gender gap in the sciences. However, where girls have a clear skills advantage is in reading.

"[The study] shows that women are likely to have an escape route. It gives them another option that boys don't have," said Marcia Linn, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who has studied gender stereotypes in the sciences for decades. She thinks that weeder courses are terrible — not just for the university but for gender equality in America's workforce.

"Everyone in those weeder courses feels like they are being weeded out — men and women. So even if you aren't influenced by stereotypes, it's tough. If you are a woman facing these additional stereotypes, which we know exist, the reading-heavy majors may seem more appealing."

Essentially, if you are a woman in college deciding which career path to go down, you may need more confidence to persist in science because you have alternatives.

My alternative-seeking tendencies resulted in one year with great grades as an English major. But when I got to campus for my junior year, I was unhappy. I found a new dean who encouraged me to pivot back toward science — a nontraditional route, for sure — because it seemed to be my passion.

Getting back on the STEM career track once you're off is rare. For me, it required summer classes and a delayed graduation. That's why girls' comparative advantage in reading, and the attractive STEM escape option it provides, is so worrisome.

But harnessing passion could be a buffer.

Passion is the next area researchers are looking at to figure out how society can keep girls on track to become physicists and mathematicians.

"As a faculty member I always ask: Is it your passion? If it is, then you shouldn't be put off by these minor setbacks. I always say go back to your passion — you shouldn't let these individual courses deter you," Linn said.

Let passion prevail.

— Clare Fieseler

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