Blog written by Susanne Cappendijk, PhD, MBA, Founder and CEO of EDsnaps Inc, a 501(c)(3) organization focused on "Increasing Diversity in the STEM Workforce", New York City, NY, USA
On a bright September morning some 4 years ago, I was preparing the voluntary before-school session for the middle school SciGirls Club Program in Tallahassee, FL. One of the 6th graders entered the classroom stating, “Hey Dr. C, I like SciGirls a lot, but I do not like math”.
Over the past 20 years, I have heard this statement and its variations repeatedly from female students, ranging from age 5-18. And every time I hear it my blood starts boiling, my toes are cringing, my eyes are turning red and smoke comes out of my ears; you get the picture. However, I play it cool and ask the student, “Why do you not like math? You do math all the time and you are pretty good at it as you are here on time!” Then I explain to the student that in order to be on time, she used math as an application to calculate the time needed to travel from home to school. Students often do not consider time as a concept of math.
In the STEM curricula that I designed over the years, we use a variety of applications to show that STEM is fun. Physics is fun when applied in a self-defense seminar. Math is fun when applied on a 3D-cube shape. Engineering is fun when applied to building an electric circuit. And who does not like to step into Augmented or Virtual Reality, which applies and combines numerous disciplines of STEM.
Why do students in general, and female students in particular, demonstrate a misleading perception towards STEM disciplines? The Oxford Dictionary defines perception as “a way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something, a mental impression”. The reason(s) for having this misleading impression can be due to several factor(s): geo-location, gender, family heritage, socio-economic classes, educational programs, and cultural background. Every one of us has experienced this issue (in)directly. Think of the family member who did not like math and repeatedly shared this vision, or a teacher discouraging your friend because she did not have grades to apply to a good college, or a neighbor discouraging girls not study math because math is not for girls, or parents who are not supportive of their daughters pursuing a post secondary education.
How can we interrupt this flow of misleading perception? Is the mental impression irreversibly anchored in the minds of female students? As a neuroscientist I argue that it is not. Everyone, including students, is exposed to the outside world, which continuously affects the brain circuitry. A STEM outreach program that provides positive real-life fun STEM experiences might initiate a perpetual central change. One might argue that this thought is simple, idealistic, and imperfect. However, I am not striving for perfection since perfection usually means stagnation and stagnation is detrimental to a change in mental impression.
We, as outreach STEM and STEAM educators, need to offer opportunities to students using socio-economic status, geo-location, gender, race, or age as positive tools to re-wire neuronal pathways. Our main goal should be to create a positive mental impression of STE(A)M for any student. Does my advocacy work? Yes it does. Our previous programs with the middle school SciGirls in Florida and our 3-week EDsnaps Program launched this past summer with underserved female high school students in the Bronx are living proof. Seeing is believing, check out the video in which the EDsnaps students demonstrate their awaking growth-mindset