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

Girls of all ages like math and science to be useful and relevant to their everyday lives. A college course on how to take apart a computer and put it back together attracted 300 male students and no young women -- until the announcement describing the course changed, to say that the computers they worked on would later be given to needy schools. Then the women signed up.

Similarly, math problems on a computer program called Animal Watch engaged girls' interest because calculations involved saving endangered animal species from extinction. Most girls -- and minority students -- want to know how what they're learning can be applied in real life. Engineering takes on meaning when students have to navigate a campus in a wheelchair (or wearing spectacles smeared with Vaseline, to get a sense of navigating nearly blind) before being asked to design handicapped-accessible facilities.

Not all girls are alike. Some already know they like math and science and just need connections made and barriers reduced. Some have yet to discover that math, science and technology are for girls. For them, it's important to arrange for exposure to role models they can look up to (the younger, the better), who convey how "cool" it is to do science -- and show them a possible future, in which there is more than one way to use a Barbie doll.

This article, adapted from the National Science Foundation publication New Formulas for America's Workforce: Girls in Science and Engineering was first published in the Style Section of the Washington Post, Tuesday, January 6, 2004, Page C09. Copyright (c) 2004 by Pat McNees.

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