BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — A recent study done at Indiana University carries frustrating implications for women in STEM-related fields. The research, led by IU social psychologist Kathryn Boucher, found that negative stereotypes about women and their math ability can significantly decrease their performance.
Boucher said representation by women in some STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields has gotten better in the past 10 years.
"In biology, they actually outpace men. But there are some subfields in which they're underrepresented, like in physics and computer science. It doesn't appear to be getting that much better over time." Boucher says many women are drawn to science that helps people, like biology and pre-medical courses.
"One of the reasons for the gender difference is that people have stereotypes about the fields," said Boucher. "There also may be a difference in having female role models. Studies have shown that it's really important to have one person that you can picture being you."
Learning science specialist Kylie Peppler at IU's Center of Excellence for Women in Technology is looking at the dilemma from another side: She wants to reimagine the way STEM topics are taught to girls from a very young age. Peppler is blurring the line between women's culture and technology culture by adding elements that appeal to younger girls, such as crafting and sewing. She says it's helpful for kids to think about approaching science topics such as electronics as though they were crafting it from paper so they can really visualize it.
"Part of what we're starting to learn is how to bring different practices in coordination with one another," said Peppler. "We take these materials that are juxtaposed from each other, and we look at their intersection and imagine what that space would be."
Peppler says sewing and robotics are good examples. She demonstrates with a dress she wrote about in one of her co-authored books. The dress is called the "Climate Dress," and it's embedded with receptors that can sense the quality of the air surrounding it. In good air quality, the dress glimmers, but in poor air quality, it's dull and lifeless.
"It's a beautiful aesthetic reminder of something pretty serious. You could build a robot or a watch that does the same thing, but this incorporates sewing skills and what it looks like," said Peppler. "It makes us think differently about the same materials." Peppler says she has always seen a connection between math and crafting. In her opinion, math is harder to teach than any other topic in school.
"Math gets lost often. It becomes a smaller part of the curriculum and it gets lost, so it's harder for students to keep it in the center of their brain," said Peppler. "Math has needed a good overhaul, but there haven't been many good leads about how to do that."
One of her projects, E-Textiles, combines fashion and beauty with math and science. The materials involved in the project encourage young learners to creatively engage with the science in an appealing way. Peppler said that some of her students have made solar-powered backpacks and electronic bracelets. She works with students of all ages, from very young children to college-aged learners, but her primary focus is in middle schools.
Peppler said that this approach could transform classroom practices since girls are more confident in areas of crafting and projects, and that the leadership seen in girls is similar to the leadership seen in boys when robots are introduced.
"Boys always take control, because it's designed for boys by boys. When we change the tools and materials, we change who participates in the field," said Peppler. "Redesigning helps invite girls to participate, and this improves learning outcomes."
Peppler sees boys take control in technology more often than girls, but she says girls step up when the learning is project-based. She says math and science are seen as too difficult or complicated because of the materials used to learn about them, not because of the actual content.
"Just because something is stereotyped as 'girly' doesn't mean it's not good for learning," said Peppler.
In future classrooms, Peppler hopes to see more hands-on learning, because this technique can improve memory of the subject. She thinks this could help change the way math is viewed as a subject in school.
"When your hands do the work, you can't forget it," said Peppler. "As you see the circuit and the path, you won't forget it."
Source: The Herald-Times, http://bit.ly/1IbA0tj
Information from: The Herald Times, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com
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