By Dr. Iolani Connolly
A good school goes a long way, but what kids do and learn outside of the classroom can be just as powerful.
My daughter was on her way to becoming a statistic. I know the statistics well because I have devoted my life to educational outreach and have spent many years trying to move the dial on girl interest in STEM careers— helping girls understand that there are multiple outlets to express their ingenuity and creativity beyond what they know. At age 13, she had already demonstrated that she was strong academically. She had also announced that she was, “too good at math and science to just be a teacher” (insert cringe here). Her logical conclusion? In her 13 year old brain this meant that she must be a doctor.
My own research in youth attitudes and behaviors in STEM suggest that my daughter is not alone in her thinking, particularly among females. In a recent study I conducted of 210 young women ages 18-25, much to my surprise I found that these females fell almost exclusively into three categories:
Category 1: Young women who pursued college and career tracks in business. These women had volunteered through organized school and community organizations and worked in youth serving or babysitting jobs in their teen years. They had also held other jobs (paid or unpaid) in clerical positions or food service. They learned from the sum of their experiences that they preferred not to work with children. They were self-defined entrepreneurs and/or strategists, who had a penchant for organizing people and projects. They felt smart, but expressed this as social intelligence rather than “book smart.” In their minds, they were adept problem solvers who could motivate people to act.
Category 2: Young women who pursued college and career tracks as teachers. These women had also volunteered through organized school and community organizations and worked in youth serving or babysitting jobs in their teen years. They learned from these experiences they should contribute to community, and they liked working with children. Sadly, they did not have positive early experiences with science and math thus had little confidence they could pursue career tracks requiring more challenging coursework. They defined themselves as creative and nurturing. By in large, they professed being driven by the desire to make world a better place by focusing on the next generation.
Category 3: Young women who pursued college and career tracks in medicine. Like the first two categories of women, this category also worked extensively as volunteers and babysitters. They also defined themselves as caring and had enjoyed working with children. Unlike the other two groups, however, these young women defined themselves as “smart.” They felt that there were expectations for them beyond “just teaching,” so they had placed themselves on challenging academic paths with laser-like focus on medicine. Despite the vastness of the medical field, however, they all had selected one of three paths in medicine: obstetrics, pediatrics, or nursing. This was exactly where my daughter was headed.
Don’t get me wrong. These are all fine professions and I applaud anyone (male or female) who chooses them. Corporations and small businesses are in need of strong leadership with developed organization skills. We need innovative teachers who aspire to change the future one learner at a time. And, we all want smart, compassionate doctors and nurses providing our care. What I find disturbing is that these choices were largely based on a limited view of how interests and skills could be used as a function of limited exposures. As a global citizen, I know that we also need more scientists and engineers with strong leadership skills, who want to make the world a better place now and for the next generation.
The opinions and notions that most young people have of careers using math and science are extremely narrow. By and large, our young people continue to see STEM careers beyond medicine as “too hard” and too mysterious to be attractive. They have little, if any, exposure to professions beyond those that they interface with daily. Realistically, this exposure cannot be changed much during the average school day. Additionally, many of the activities that youth participate in outside of school time do little to expand their horizons further. As a result, they typically don’t see scientific researchers and engineers as creative, compassionate people who work collaboratively to make the world safer and improve the quality of people’s lives.
Back to my daughter. The summer of her 13th year, we sent her to a “So you think you want to be a doctor” program on a university campus. (Yes, that is what it was really called.) By the end of the second day, she had concluded that being an M.D. was in fact not for her. She decided that spending time with patients was not her calling. She spent a part of her days in the program in exploratory seminars, learning about pressing issues that researchers are working on and doing computer modeling. She came home psyched about the possibility of performing scientific research. The following summer, she explored genetics through another series of workshops where she grew her skill and confidence in the lab. This confidence translated into persistence in the classroom. She has had lack-luster teachers in biology and chemistry but when others were dropping the class, she persevered. Why? Because she was already sold on the rewards of mastering the content and she knew she was capable. She could see beyond the immediate to the future for herself she envisioned.
Research shows that having a clear vision of future aspirations is a key factor in young people’s persistence in science and math. Clarity around the type of career one aspires to, however, is not a vision that appears out of nowhere. It has to be created through interaction and exposure. It is a result of exploring, demystifying the unknown and making the unattainable in fact attainable. The young women in my study said they wish they had done more, seen more, known more before they had to decide what they wanted to be. They said they all knew they could “be anything they wanted,” they just didn’t know what that anything could be.
Each year, it has been my pleasure to watch my daughter’s interests become more refined and her character more resolute. This has not been because of what she does in school every day. Although she has had her share of inspiring teachers (and those who are not), her real enthusiasm has been fostered by the people she has met, the things she has done, and the understanding she has gained by participating in programs and activities outside of school. I do not know what my daughter will wind up doing, as she has yet to enter college and there may be several iterations of college majors yet to come. That said, I am hopeful that her choice will not be a default based on what she does not know about what is out there, but rather a conscious choice based on what she has experienced and what she knows to excite her.
Dr. Iolani Connolly has spent over 20 years in industry and education. Formerly the Vice President of Program Impact at Girl Scouts, she is the current Director of the Science and Engineering Education Center at the University of Texas at Dallas, serving approximately 35,000 K-12 learners through outreach programs each year. She holds a Master’s of Science in Telecommunications and a Ph.D. in Education.