Remember the talking Barbie who came out in the early 1990s and announced to anyone who cared to listen that “math class is tough.” Mattel retracted her in the wake of public outcry but it’s been much tougher to change the bad rap math gets in the minds of many teenage girls. “Math is hard” turns into “I’m no good at math” which for many becomes math avoidance and a cold shoulder to many possible careers in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). Even at a time when women account for half of the workforce in the U.S., they fill fewer than 25% of all jobs in the STEM fields, according to the Commerce Department.
It’s a heavily researched question—girls’ self-perception in relation to math—without any evidence of inherent differences in ability (despite comments a few years ago by Larry Summers). So if girls are as capable of high performance as boys in the STEM arena, why do so few of them pursue the work?
Maybe the way that kids—and especially girls—are being taught science and math has turned them off. Recently, researchers at Worchester Polytechnic Institute studied the effect of project-based learning on their graduates. WPI has used extended projects in its undergraduate curriculum since 1974, so they had a lot of data to crunch. What they found surprised them.
The projects that WPI offers its engineering students run the gamut from canal dredging in Venice to helping young tribal members in Sante Fe capture disappearing languages. These projects have been an extremely effective means of teaching STEM content, but WPI has recently focused its research on the question of gender. They found that project based learning is even more effective for female students than it is for their male counterparts. For example, 70% of women said that project-based learning helped them to function more effectively once they got out of school, and 77% and 76% of women, respectively, pointed to this type of curriculum strengthening their ability to generate ideas and to solve problems.
This makes sense. As the authors of the WPI study noted, there has been a lot of research suggesting that social context and collaboration are great motivators for women and girls, and social context and collaboration are at the heart of good project based learning.
But there is no reason students should have to wait until college to delve into interesting, real-world projects. High schools that are integrating project-based learning into their curricula are the ones really turning kids on to STEM. As Tricia Berry, of the Women in Engineering program at the University of Texas at Austin says about getting students into project-based learning during high school, “They get excited about it and they can begin to see, ‘Ah, this is how I fit into this.’ It does draw them in, and helps them not only to apply to those STEM fields but to stay in and graduate and go on to the work force.”
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.