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First of All – Men


Somehow I came to possess a series of booklets that were produced by the public relations department at General Motors between 1939 and 1941.  Most of them provide education on various aspects of an automobile’s workings.  They are boldly optimistic and beautifully illustrated.

I tried to determine the purpose of their creation, but came up short.  One possibility is the booklets were sent to Ford owners to convince them to buy GM, a practice common to the car company during this time period.  But their tone is more informative than persuasive.  Another possibility is they were prepared for distribution during the 1939 New York World’s Fair.  

That year, GM sponsored an exhibit called Futurama.  People waited in line for hours to experience it.  Visitors were moved through a vision of the future while a narrator relayed what could be expected in coming years.  The pamphlet I have from the same year, titled To New Horizons, has the same oracle tone.  But in all that GM could see, the company could not envision a future where more women would participate in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  ”The only secret of successful research is men,” the pamphlet claims.  


My first thought when I read this was, I am glad I don’t live in 1939.  Then I remembered a recent study.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development tested 470,000 students in 65 developed nations.  In the majority of countries 15 year old girls earned higher scores on a science exam than boys.  The United States was not among them.  The US came in 62nd place, only in Liechtenstein and Columbia do girls score worse than boys in science than they do in the US.  In a New York Times report of the study an OECD representative states, “Different countries offer different incentives for learning math and science.” What social incentive do we offer American girls?

Last month I was talking to my neighbor’s 10 year old daughter on the way home from the bus.  I asked her if she was planning to participate in an after school math program with my son.  She replied, “No, girls don’t do that kind of thing.”

Now, I know for a fact that girls do and that many of those girls are her friends.  So it really threw me to hear her say that.  Where had she picked up this line of thinking?  

My neighbor’s kid is smart and funny, the type who seems to have the confidence and ability to do anything.  She is stuck in a cul-de-sac filled with boys.  When the weather is warm, and all the kids are forced outside to play, I look out the window and smile as she organizes a “campfire” with spare wood and folding chairs, jumps on a pogo stick while playing the violin, or rides down a steep driveway on a skateboard topped with a boogie board.  She never seemed to be the kind of kid who would proclaim there is anything girls don’t do.

Her parents are both engineers.  Her mom is an electrical engineer who works a few hours a day from home while the kids are at school.  Math is a priority in her household; her mom creates practice exams before every test.  When the third grade was studying electricity she happily relayed to the class what her mom had taught her about energy flowing through a circuit.  This is the child whose reflex is to tell me, girls don’t do math?      

The pamphlet by General Motors points out a cultural feedback that has been created in the United States.  Considerable nationalism surrounds the technology developed in this country.  The automobile is rooted here.  This is the only country to have engineered a manned moon landing.  It was the first country to produce, and the only country to deploy, an atomic bomb.  All of these achievements are associated with the minds of men; therefore, you have to be a man to have the mind to achieve.  This belief is an unfortunate outcome of the success of our nation.      

The ghosts of our past are difficult to exorcise. It is going to take a long time until “Girls don’t do that kind of thing” is eradicated from our national vocabulary.  A child, like my neighbor’s, who is swimming in opportunity to pursue a STEM career is still influenced by a generation who thought the only secret of successful research is men. 

Why My Children Have a Better Chance at a STEM Career Than Yours

When my younger son was 3 yrs old his preschool teachers sent home a note saying she was impressed he knew he lived on the planet Earth.  My husband laughed, “You mean you didn’t tell them you live on Jupiter or Saturn.”  The 3 year old responded, “No Daddy, those planets are made of gas; you would fall right through.” 

I have two boys, a couple years apart, whose Grandparents live in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  Because of this my older son had an obsession with the Saturn V rocket.  A couple of books on space, hours and hours of rereading popular passages, and apparently the three year old picked up a few things. 

As an aside, I now know more then I ever wanted to about the rocket.  The command modular, the lunar modular, which is jettisoned when and what orbit they take.  Watching Appollo 13 has brand new meaning for me.     

My children aren’t boy geniuses.  They simply have an advantage that a typical attendant of public schools might not have – regular exposure to science. 

Parents with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers share their experience with their children leaving nonSTEM off-spring at a disadvantage, because, as the research shows, our public school system is failing when it comes to math and science.

My children are in the Pennsylvania public school system.  A state ranked 12th in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Mathematics Score, 21st in the NAEP Science score and 42nd in average SAT Mathematics scores.  

I am a product of public schools.  I believe in public education.  The social depth that public education provides is important to my children’s development.  But as an educator, a science educator, I think public schools are doing math and science a serious disservice. 

Half of my children’s school day is spent on reading and writing.  Math gets one hour of their time-16%.  Science comes in two month aliquots.  Depending on the time of year, 8% of their day is either spent on science, social studies, or health.    It is the same amount of time allotted to Recess and Lunch to give you an idea of its significance. 

A document produced by the National Science Foundation in 1978 titled, Case Studies in Science Education echoes today’s truths from 40 years ago.  One of the report’s general observations: “Nationally we found that science education was being given low priority, yielding to increasing emphasis on basic skills (reading and computation).”

The 1978 report is an inviting read.  It contains interviews from teachers and administrators from 11 sites around the country.  Their candor captures the essence of fruitful science education. 

One elementary school in the study had a portable building, filled with animals, where science was taught.  The science teacher’s educational philosophy is poignant.  “When a child asks how a bird stands on a wire, a more reasonable answer can be found from holding a bird and observing, than from any amount of verbal explanation by a teacher.  I try not to give a child an answer.  The question means curiosity and that means opportunity for learning – not for getting what’s in me into him.”

As a nation we seem to understand that the motivation for science learning comes from performing experiments, but we have broken that down to its most basic scaffolding.  Stoking curiosity seems to have been forgotten. 

At the elementary school my children attend science sits in a box.  When time for science opens in their schedule, the box comes out and experiment kits are distributed.  In second grade the topic was soil.  The kits taught the children about soil like this:  What happens when you smear sand on paper?  What happens when you smear clay on paper?  What happens when you smear hummus on a paper?  Can’t children make these observations while packing mud pies or playing on the beach?  Then they have to draw detailed illustrations – of sand.  The kit is intended to fill a couple months on the calendar so the uninspiring experiments go on and on, for weeks.  

We live in Pennsylvania for goodness sakes, take them to a farm.  Or have a farmer drive his tractor to the school, there are probably six farms in a 10 mile radius.  Let the kids climb on the tractor and then have the farmer show the students why sand and clay are important to his crops.  They might not remember an ounce of detail, but the experience will never leave them.       

Remember when you were younger and an adult put you in their lap while they drove – around the cul-de-sac, into the driveway?  You couldn’t reach the pedal but you were quite comfortable with the steering wheel.  You griped it in both hands and experienced maneuvering the car.  There was no pressure, you were a kid; it was fun.  At sixteen the familiarity you had with the wheel assuaged the anxiety of learning to drive.  Science education in our nation’s schools is like handing a young child the driver’s manual.     

My least favorite part about being a scientist has got to be writing in a notebook.  I’m well aware of its importance, but if I had to spend as much time as my kids do writing down observations I would shoot myself.   Children aren’t encouraged to be police officer by focusing on report filling.   They don’t want to be physicians because they learned how stimulating it is to deal with the bureaucracy of insurance companies.  Why do children need ten worksheets on chrysalis illustrations?  It’s an oval! 

When you teach science in primary school with the intention of retention you risk turning off future scientists.   A Houston teacher for the 1978 NSF case study sums it up perfectly, “They’ll forget much but re-learn it so much easier later.  They may not fully appreciate Newton’s Law now but I don’t force it.  Later they’ll recognize having heard of it so it won’t be a total shock.  They may only recall that objects behave differently in outer space and on earth.”

My dad bought my oldest a circuit set.  It is full of resistors, capacitors and integrated circuits.  Using two AA batteries you can light a bulb, power a fan, or sound an alarm.  From playing with it for an hour he gained a basic understanding of the physics of electricity, but I doubt he is aware of that.  “Mommy is this science?” he asked.  When I affirmed that it was he said, “Why don’t we ever do any fun science like this at school?”   Indeed?