Thursday, August 4, 2011

How to encourage more girls to enter science?

Women earn the majority of college degrees in the U.S. and, since 2009, the majority of doctorates. This is not the case in astronomy or physics. Why are we different?

The American Institute of Physics has studied the enrollments of girls and boys in high school physics classes and AP exams in a recent report. Physics is important preparation for STEM degrees. The good news is that the percentage of girls taking high school physics has grown more rapidly than for boys. The bad news is that fewer girls are electing to take AP Physics and even fewer are electing to take the AP exams. As AIP authors Susan White and Casey Langer Tesfaye note, "To examine why, we would need to look at factors which impacted these students before their final years of high school. Did something in the earlier science curriculum discourage girls from more advanced physics? Or was it the general belief, widely embraced in our culture, that girls just don’t 'do' hard sciences?"

Although we may not know the answers, I think we know some of the solutions. Girls in middle school -- high school may be too late -- must be shown the value of math and science and encouraged to believe that it offers them exciting career choices. They need to see science as something cool that girls do. They need role models and mentoring. The difficulty is less in identifying solutions than in implementing them.

Here's one more need: universities need to value more the outreach efforts made by some students, postdocs, staff, and faculty to attract more young people to science and engineering. This will require the scientific profession itself to value outreach more highly. Too often it seems to be an add-on to research grants and not valued for its own sake. At my own institution, I'm impressed with the efforts being made by engineers such as the Women's Technology Program in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Physics has almost the same gender balance challenges as computer science, yet I'm puzzled that the field makes less of an effort.

Have you engaged in outreach? Was there a pivotal moment in your own early years that brought you to astronomy? What lessons can you share?