Still Waiting For Liftoff

When it comes to teaching girls about science, engineering, technology, and math, how far along are we, really -- nearly 30 years after Ride cracked NASA's space ceiling?


When Sally Ride was preparing to become America's first female astronaut, she had to field some particularly tough questions: Would she be packing a bra or menstrual supplies? Did she worry her reproductive organs might be damaged by space flight?

Looking back at those interviews with Ride, who was 61 when she died July 23 after a battle with pancreatic cancer, the sexist tenor of the queries is almost comical. But as Ride was quoted as responding in 1983, "It's too bad this is such a big deal. It's too bad our society isn't further along."

But how far along are we, really, nearly 30 years after Ride cracked NASA's space ceiling?

Ride dedicated much of her post-NASA career to writing educational children's books and supporting initiatives that encouraged students -- particularly girls -- to get involved in science. Unfortunately, there remains a significant gender gap both when it comes to females in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers, and student achievement on standardized tests in those subjects. On the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as "The Nation's Report Card," girls lagged a full five percentage points behind boys in eighth grade science. Overall, less than a third of American schoolchildren met the eighth grade standard for proficiency. (For more on STEM education, click here.)

Plenty of organizations are trying to boost student interest and achievement in STEM, and to address the underrepresentation of women in those fields. Interestingly, holding up role models like Sally Ride might not be the most effective approach.

The Institute of Education Sciences' What Works Clearinghouse determined that when it comes to encouraging girls in math and science, there's only "minimal" evidence that exposing students to role models in those fields has a measurable effect. Based on existing research, the clearinghouse rated several other approaches as having a "moderate" positive effect, including having teachers connect science and math to careers in ways that didn't reinforce gender stereotypes. The only approach that was rated as having a "strong" effect by the clearinghouse was the following:

Explicitly teach students that academic abilities are expandable and improvable in order to enhance girls' beliefs about their abilities. Students who view their cognitive abilities as fixed from birth or unchangeable are more likely to experience decreased confidence and performance when faced with difficulties or setbacks. Students who are more confident about their abilities in math and science are more likely to choose elective math and science courses in high school and more likely to select math- and science-related college majors and careers.

Those findings are consistent with a 2008 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study, in which researchers explored the reasons why girls avoid science and math. The study found that parents and teachers encouraging self-confidence in girls was a bigger factor in their success in learning math and science than whether their interest was captured at the outset. In fact, when the self-confidence was there, the interest followed.

While the research might not be strong on the effect of role models on girls' career choices, Erin Cadwalader, a public policy fellow for the Association for Women in Science, said Sally Ride was most certainly an influence on her own life. Cadwalader, who was 2 years old when Ride blasted into space, said she wanted to be an astronaut until a growth spurt in her teens pushed her to 6'1". Wondering if she would exceed NASA's height limit -- 6' 3" for pilots and 6' 4" for mission specialists -- she decided to expand her career goals. She went on to earn her doctorate in neurobiology.

But Cadwalader said the biggest motivating factor in her career choice was probably her father, who was also a scientist. She trained as a developmental biologist, researching how certain proteins factor into heart defects in babies and children with a goal of improving early interventions.

"I always had parents who encouraged me," Cadwalader said. "I never felt insecure about my abilities in science."

(Indeed, a recent study found that parents might be an untapped resource for steering students into STEM classes.)

AWIS, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization, has been struggling to come up with a catchy slogan to explain why the focus must expand to include addressing the significant problems women face when they actually enter STEM career fields. Those problems commonly include a lack of family-friendly policies and too few opportunities for advancement. The top contender for a slogan so far: Because Girls Grow Up.

"You can get as many girls as you can into STEM classes, but if you don't have a work environment that makes them want to stay in that industry, it doesn't do much good in the long run," Cadwalader said.

Psychologist and professor Nadya Fouad, one of the authors of the 2008 Wisconsin study, told me that Cadwalader's points are spot-on. Fouad recently completed a study of retention of women engineers, which found that significant work remains to be done to improve both opportunities and the workplace.

"We can do all the work we want to get women to consider these occupations," Fouad said. "But the climate has to be supportive of them wanting to be in there."

This post also appears at The Educated Reporter, an Atlantic partner site.