Girls in Science & Technology: Why Janie Can't Engineer

Would your attitude toward physics have been different if your introduction to it had involved devising a catapult to send the head of a Barbie doll over a castle wall during a mock medieval siege? Girls in a research project funded by the National Science Foundation learned through trial and error that a Barbie doll head is hard to catapult unless you make it heavier -- for example, by inserting lead sinkers into it. They also learned that it was easier to catapult a potato. Then they learned about density and velocity, which were not presented simply as abstractions.

It's enough to make you want to go back to school.

Hands-on learning is one key to getting more girls hooked on science -- which is important for overcoming the national shortfall in scientifically literate workers. That point comes up in many contexts in a book I just wrote for the National Science Foundation, New Formulas for America's Workforce: Girls in Science and Engineering. In the book I summarize for parents and educators what investigators on 224 projects have learned about how to get more girls and women to study for careers in science, technology and engineering.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the things we do to our children in the name of education discourage them from taking the gateway courses required for many rewarding careers. Parents and teachers expect different things from girls and boys, for example, which affects how they perform and often limits what they learn -- and what they expect from themselves.

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