Teaching kids STEM subjects

13/03/2012 § Leave a comment

This is a personal, ranting post. I hope you will oblige.

I use maths for work every day. Different sorts, different levels of complexity. Sometimes, it’s simple diagrams. Other times, it’s proper econometrics. I find I think best when I can toggle between an understanding of the subject matter and the maths we are using to analyse it. My dad was an actuary, and used maths every day. His brother was in banking (more maths) and their uncles were different sorts of engineers (more maths), including, yes, a rocket scientist.

You may have noticed that the people I mentioned are all males.

I have two daughters. They have inherited the family predilection for maths. They are doing well in school, yes, but also have an affinity for maths, a special understanding of patterns that goes beyond book learning.

When a girl is good at running, she is encouraged to run. She runs races at school, she gets prizes, she goes to regional competitions, her personal bests are celebrated. She is encouraged to challenge herself and others.

When a girl is good at maths, she is not encouraged. In each year, teachers prefer to stick to the curriculum. A girl who is ahead of the curriculum is money in the bank for the teacher — job done before we’ve even started. Besides, why would a girl want to get ahead? There would be nothing for her to do next year!

Yes, this is the attitude. No, I am not the only parent who has encountered it.

Maths are the basis for all STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) subjects. They are the sine qua non. You have to understand calculus and statistics to do the rest. If you make girls count back and forth along a number line because that’s this year’s curriculum, you are depriving them of the opportunity to get on with learning calculus and statistics. You are depriving them of the possibility of studying STEM subjects.

There is a lot of hand-wringing about STEM at school and university. There is also hand-wringing about STEM and women and minorities (here is an example). Some of it is posturing, absolutely. But some of it raises a valid point: why are children, especially certain groups of children, discouraged from these careers? And what do we do about it?

The ‘why’ is complex. It is easy to say that these are male-dominated subjects, but that can change pretty quickly in a given field. Check out, for example, the enrolment figures from the 1970s and 1980s for US law schools. Another factor is that teaching, particularly primary school teaching, is dominated by people from the humanities. Many people who study humanities are uncomfortable with maths; many don’t even see the value in it.

What do we do about it? Whatever it is, I know we can’t wait until the end of secondary school or university to support these girls. It has to start much, much earlier, from primary onward. A basic principle is: encourage excellence. Regardless of what interests a girl, regardless of what her particular skills are, encourage her to excel. If you find yourself saying, ‘Why bother with that?’, put yourself in time-out and come back when you are ready to be encouraging.

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