Fewer than 15 percent of U.S. undergraduates are pursuing degrees in science and engineering. U.S. math and science test scores lag those of other nations, chiefly China and India. U.S. high schools are falling behind the rest of the world in computer science, and too few women and minorities are employed in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
STEM subjects are arguably the foundation of our global economic future. Such skills are essential for almost any job, and are certainly imperative for nations to compete in an evolving marketplace. Indeed, STEM expertise likely holds the key to daunting global challenges, such as healthcare, hunger, poverty, and climate change. The U.S. Labor Department projects that by 2014, the U.S. will have more than two million job openings in STEM fields. The bottom line is: Will we be able to fill them?
This question and others were discussed during a panel session I moderated at The Family Online Safety Institute’s Sixth Annual Conference. I had the privilege of guiding a conversation entitled “Girls in Tech,” among four impressive women: Avery McCall, a high school freshman from Illinois, who serves as one of 14 teen advisors to the United Nations’ “Girl Up” campaign and an aspiring physician; Kamla Modi, a research and outreach analyst with the Girl Scout Research Institute of the Girl Scouts of the USA; April Osajima, Director of Public Policy for the non-profit Girls Inc., and Claire Panter, Head of Community at U.K. entertainment company Mind Candy.
The panelists agreed the current dearth of STEM expertise is a universal, non-gender-specific challenge, but the panel discussed the topic as it applies specifically to girls and women. Four things, they said, are vital for females to be successful in STEM fields: strong academic performance, confidence, adult support, and exposure – as early in life as possible. In fact, the women urged parents and teachers to continue to encourage girls to pursue STEM studies, even if they fail to demonstrate any immediate aptitude. Encouragement, the Girl Scouts’ Modi offered, shouldn’t just be for those who are “good at” math and science; girls need to know that they can become good at these subjects.
Another theme that emerged was the need to break stereotypes: those of career choices – and even childhood play – based on traditional gender roles, and those associated with clichéd technology enthusiasts. Osajima of Girls Inc. painted a picture of kids and parents jointly perusing toy store catalogues ahead of the upcoming holiday season. She noted the distinct separation of dolls and cooking play items from the robots and building blocks. Ask kids if they think it’s okay for girls to play with robots and boys to be chefs, she said. And, hold out examples of successful female professionals in STEM fields, who don’t conform to the hackneyed “geek” stereotype.
Microsoft advocates for improved STEM education in the United States, recommending, among other things, that society and governments:
• Increase investment in education systems that enable students to gain a solid foundation in STEM subjects and related disciplines such as computer science,
• Develop a firm pipeline of educators who are effective at teaching STEM subjects and skilled at using technology, and
• Enhance computer science curricula and assessments to better prepare students for the broad range of real-world computing environments.
For more on Microsoft’s work in this area, visit: www.microsoft.com/publicpolicy.