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Pittsburgh Girls Battle Age-Old Stereotype that Females aren't as Good at Math and Science as Boys


There’s an old notion that girls are not as good at math and science as boys. That thought still persists today even among teachers – according to a study by the University of Texas.  Girls and educators in the Pittsburgh region are working against that stereotype.

“Girls can do anything that guys can do, and maybe even better…especially science,” was the answer given by a group of girls at Carnegie Science Center’s Click! Camp for Girls, when asked if they thought boys were better at math and science.

On a summer day, campers were testing water quality in the Ohio River. The girls, broken into small groups, collect water samples. After the water collection, they follow directions to test for things such as PH, or acidity, and dissolved oxygen levels.

“PH is 6.5 and there’s no dissolved oxygen in the water…that’s bad…the fish need oxygen.”

The campers spent the week focusing on several areas of science, including cryptography, or code-breaking, electric circuitry, and crime scene investigation. Many were excited about science, and took issue with the notion that girls are not as good at math and science as boys.

Teacher Bias

A recent University of Texas study found a prevailing notion among high school teachers that white girls were not as skilled in the subjects as white boys, even when evidence to the contrary, such as test scores, was presented. In contrast, teachers rated minority students of both genders as less adept at math and science than white students, but that idea disappeared once actual grades were taken into account. So why does the idea persist for white females?  Part of it may be interest.

“When you look at the research, girls are just as interested as boys, if not slightly more than, all the way up until about fourth grade. Around middle school we see a drop in the interest in students in general in math and science, but for girls it is a precipitous fall off a cliff,” said Linda Ortenzo, director of STEM programs at Carnegie Science Center.

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. There many reasons that interest declines, among them are the images girls see of themselves in their everyday lives.

“There’s that whole idea that girls who are smart in math and science might seem less attractive to boys. There’s also this lack of female mentorship at a very critical time,” said Ortenzo.

In addition, there’s something called “stereotype threat” at play.

“Culturally girls believe they’re not supposed to be as good as boys at math and science and girls are particularly susceptible to stereotype threat. So the idea is, if you tell a girl or you convey unconsciously to a girl that she’s not going to be as good as boys at math and science, then she will behave as if she is not,” said Kitty Julian, a spokeswoman for the all-girls Ellis School in Pittsburgh.

No Evidence that Girls are Worse in the subjects

There is no scientific evidence that supports the idea that girls don’t perform as well as boys in STEM fields. In Pittsburgh there are numerous efforts underway to keep girls interested in the subjects in middle school and beyond.  Linda Ortenzo said the Science Center works with math and science teachers in the high school level and below and that bias is not something she’s seen much of here. That may be due, partly, to ongoing professional development on the topic.

“We’ve not found teachers challenging the efficacy of girls in those subjects, but it is important to remind them that how they teach and the practices they’re employing really can influence how wells girls do in those subjects simply because learning styles can be different,” added Ortenzo.

Lisa Abel Palmieri is head of the computer science department at the Ellis School. She said that is precisely the point - girls DO learn math and science differently than boys.

“Girls love to learn through collaboration, definitely the idea of working together to solve a problem. They like the time to reflect before they automatically give an answer, whereas boys oftentimes will blurt out an answer before really pausing to reflect about it, girls need that time to just ponder and reflect,” she said.

Even with efforts underway, though, many educators just aren’t aware of that.

“Schools need to give time for professional development for teachers so they can learn how girls learn differently. In general, this is not taught in the college classroom when you’re learning to be a teacher, so we need the time and the space for our teachers to learn how to teach to girls,” said Palmieri.

Girls also thrive on something called project-based learning. That’s the idea of learning through inquiry, giving them a question or research problem to solve. Ellis School student Aveeka Vats says everything starts with a question.

“I feel like I’m always searching for the why. Like why do we do things this way, why does this happen this way? And in my search for finding why I’m always finding new questions and I have to keep finding answers,” she said.

And that, said Ellis School math teacher Amy Yam, helps keep girls interested. Not just teaching them the how of scientific procedures or math problems, but the why as well.

“Can girls do math? Yes. Can girls also understand the story behind why the math works? That’s what girls can do exceptionally well, and I think that’s what the vast majority of students actually can’t do,” said Yam.

Why the push to get more girls involved in STEM fields? Well, Lisa Abel Palmieri says it’s to further diversify a field that has long been dominated by men, “women can add something to the workplace, I mean the way women approach a problem or a challenge is just intuitively different than the way men approach a challenge.”

Desire to Make a Difference

As for the girls themselves – Ellis School student Aveeka Vats isn’t letting age-old stereotypes about women stand in the way.

“All I can do is talk to other people my age, talk to other people, show them that we aren’t just the person that stays at home, we are capable of doing great things outside of the house and it’s not up to anyone besides us in our generation,” said Vats.

The same held true for the campers at the Carnegie Science Center.

“I like doing the experiments…figuring out what’s going on and what needs to be fixed…and how to make the world happier and healthier.”

That was a prevailing theme among the girls I spoke to, a desire to simply make the world a better place to live through science, technology, engineering and math. Pittsburgh is a great place to be for that thanks to numerous efforts including the Girls Math and Science Partnership, Girls of Steel Robotics Team and the YWCA TechGyrls Program.