Teaching Teachers To Overcome Hidden STEM Biases
Implicit biases—such as girls aren't as good as boys in science and math—have hampered advancements in work force diversity for decades. But what does it mean when girls themselves perpetuate the damaging erroneous stereotype? What can be done to entice girls to pursue classes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) before they lose interest? Most people hold unconscious, implicit assumptions that influence their judgments and perceptions of others. People sometimes apply the biases unintentionally, which results in actions or the absence of action that can reduce the quality of the work force and create unfair and destructive environments. SIGNAL Media and AFCEA International’s Women in AFCEA are addressing the issue of women in STEM in a multi-month project.
Turns out, intelligence isn’t cool.
At least not in the opinions of some middle school students, especially girls.
Such a notion makes suppressing the negative effects of the implicit bias that girls cannot perform as well as boys in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) that much more complicated.
It’s bad enough when teachers, parents and society exclude girls—but downright destructive when girls do it themselves, says Christine Royce, department chairperson and professor of teacher education at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania.
“What happens is they don’t want to be perceived as being too smart, and science is a smart subject,” Royce says of middle school aged girls. “Often, they will back off on their own, even if they have an interest in science. They are worried about their image, their popularity.
“It's a twofold problem: Teachers might tend to call on boys more, but boys may be volunteering more in class at that point because girls start to self select out of answering questions or wanting to volunteer.”
Implicit biases have hampered advancements in work force diversity for decades. Most people hold unconscious, implicit assumptions that influence their judgments and perceptions of others. People sometimes apply the biases unintentionally, which results in actions or the absence of action that can reduce the quality of the work force and create unfair and destructive environments, according to a dispatch from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.
“Biases are destructive for those who apply them as well as those being judged based on stereotypes,” reads the statement, which cites several examples: Parents tend to rate math abilities of their daughters lower than parents of boys with identical math performance in school; college faculty are less likely to respond to an email from a student inquiring about research opportunities if the email appears to come from a woman than if the identical email appears to come from a man; and science faculties are less likely to hire or mentor a student if they believe the student is a woman rather than a man.
This administration has made STEM education and women in STEM a priority with programs that aim to increase the participation of women, girls and other underrepresented minorities in STEM-related fields by boosting engagement in formal and informal environments, encouraging mentoring and supporting efforts to retain women in the STEM work force.
“The incidence of implicit bias has not changed over the last few decades, demonstrating the persistence of such bias across time and generations,” the White House paper states.
The miscues, unintentional or not, can leave dramatic and long-lasting consequences in their wake and risk derailing girls’ success in STEM classes, according to the National Education Association, which cited a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in an in-house article. “A teacher’s power to influence, the researchers say, can extinguish a girl’s elementary school dream of becoming a rocket scientist or help it to flourish,” according to the nation’s largest teacher organization.
The persisting problem means society must talk about it, especially when it comes to teaching the teachers, Royce offers. “It’s important to tackle misconceptions or preconceptions, to include what a scientist is and who can be a scientist,” says Royce, referring to the often-cited Draw A Scientist Test (DAST) designed in 1983 by David Wade Chambers. While young students often draw mirror images, the older students get, the more removed they become from seeing themselves as scientists, Royce explains. When asked to draw a scientist, older test takers tend to sketch a well-known stereotypic image of what a scientist looks like: older white men with beards, goofy hair and clad in white lab coats, glasses and using pocket protectors.
“Overall, scientists are presented as serious, sometimes ominous, people who pursue science as solitary investigators working in an environment devoid of social interactions,” according to an article by Thomas E. McDuffie Jr., in the May 2001 issue of Science and Children magazine. “In teachers’ drawings, ethnic minority representation was practically nonexistent.”
Teachers and administrators must work at making STEM relevant in order to make it real, Royce expresses. “We need to make science cool in the early grades and continue moving that mindset into the middle grades,” Royce says. “It's about engaging them and getting them to think in different ways. Sometimes, that's the teacher finding that little bit of information—a book, an activity, a video—that gives them something else to think about besides what's just done in class.”
Additionally, Royce instructs future teachers to be on the lookout for falling victim to implicit biases. Teachers must constructively monitor each other’s behavior and keep checklists to ensure they involve all students in classroom work and discussions.
“The idea of teaching the teachers is teaching the stakeholders,” says Royce, whose interest in science came from informal opportunities such as Girl Scouts and summer camps rather than formal education. “Everybody who engages or interacts with students, from pre-[kindergarten] on up, has the opportunity to help students develop a love of science, help them develop a love of learning, help them have that natural curiosity.”
Teachers can instill that love of learning if they possess it themselves, Royce shares. “We have to teach them the pedagogical skills they're going to need in the classroom, but the first thing that we need to do is to reengage [teachers] in the love of curiosity and the love of learning. Many of them may have come through school when science might not have been their favorite subject or it might not have been taught in a constructivist approach.”
Cultivating a future of STEM-educated students is a feat exacerbated by continuous years of teacher shortages and polls that show public school teachers are becoming more disillusioned about their jobs, Royce says.
Job dissatisfaction coupled with the higher cost of education and dwindling public sector budgets contribute to teacher shortages plaguing many of the nation’s public schools, she offers. “Sometimes, women may choose to postpone getting a higher degree because a partner or spouse is pursuing a higher degree, so it becomes the staggered approach,” Royce adds. “Or the time and focus that many STEM programs require, whether residency or internships on campus, might not necessarily be conducive to having a young family. There are a lot of different possibilities.
“Teaching isn't that safe and comfortable job anymore. A lot of districts are financially strapped ... [and] there is not a guarantee you are going to get a teaching job. People are considering, 'Why should I go into teaching if I can't get a job?'"
And even though today’s youth are digital natives practically addicted to the ever-improving technology, the pervasiveness of technology in every day living alone is not making it easier to entice students to STEM fields, Royce opines.
“Technology as they use it is a tool that they've never been without. They swipe and pinch and zoom out. They have all of these ideas of how to use technology, but learning how to apply technology, to solve a problem or engage them in a question, is still a missing link,” she says. “While they utilize technology, they're not always sure how they can make that technology expand on what they want to do.”