Recently I read a report on a summit for girls in math and science. To my dismay, the report showed little more than a description of the perceived problem: Very few girls and women are motivated to study engineering or science. If the state of our knowledge on this issue is simply a recognition of the obvious, we have a long ways to go before we can see any changes.
Mentioned in the report were several key study results that may indicate where the problem lies. First, is a general ennui felt by both sexes regarding math and science at the middle school level. Second, is the fact that very few young students could name a compelling career that uses math and science. As adults, we ask kids all the time what they want to be when they grow up. According to a brief note in Daniel Gilberts new book we just do that because we are entertained by the fact that whatever they think now has very little to do with what they'll actually end up doing. I guess life treated us that way and now we just find it humorous that it will do the same to these kids.
The summit I mentioned as well as other forums for concern imply that unfortunately, math and science must be approached early in our educations if we are to ever become proficient, so it is essential that we have a motivation to do so, a motivation like a compelling future career.
I've been looking at what middle school and high school kids do choose to spend their time on and I don't see any evidence that a compelling future career motivates many of their choices. So, I've uncovered another problem: people generally don't plan a career early in life and prepare for it. Not a big surprise.
I'm thinking that there must be a better way to motivate kids to take math and science seriously. They must experience for themselves the excitement, wonder, fascination and especially the feeling of accomplishment that comes from focusing enough time, energy and attention on mathematical and scientific concepts to achieve that "aha" experience you get when you finally understand a new concept, a new way to look at an event or phenomena, a solution to a real world problem. Without that experience, you can't imagine what it is like to be a successful scientist or engineer. That experience must be earned. Just like the experiences of riding a bicycle, finding your way through a video game, playing a musical instrument, surfing, skiing, or any other accomplishment comes from many attempts and failures and many small victories so do the experiences of coding a clean, efficient computer program, finding the solution to a real world mathematical problem or realizing you just discovered a previously unknown phenomenon that will lead to the next big technological industry. Kids need to see more examples of what scientists and engineers have accomplished, and they need to see more of the path that was followed to that accomplishment. Watching a musician make beautiful, emotionally stirring music, I may get the impression that I could never have done that. But, watching those musicians learn to play that instrument and seeing what they went through to do it makes it seem more possible for me. (I watched 3 of my own kids learn to play beautifully). So too could seeing the images that are possible to obtain from a modern satelite mapping all sorts of data over the face of the earth seem like magic, so far beyond our comprehension are these complex systems that we wouldn't even try to understand them. However, a good overview of these systems, looking at how the relatively simple components work together, and seeing how experts in various disciplines all contribute their part to the system makes it seem much more plausible that a middle school student could put in the effort necessary to become a contributing engineer on one of these fantastic projects.