Old stereotypes die hard—and the one that science and technology is only for nerds or boys seems to be one of the hardest ones for our society to shake. "There are enormous pressures to be cool and interesting in a certain way," says Tamara Hudgins, Ph.D., executive director of Girlstart, a nonprofit dedicated to providing after-school and enrichment programs to get girls interested in the sciences. “And unfortunately, there’s a pervasive sense that interest in science is incompatible with cool—especially if you’re a girl.”
So while women have come to dominate the workforce and the overall number of college graduates, only 25 percent of the people in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines (called STEM for short) are women. “That means that potential innovations aren’t happening, because we’re not preparing our students for the STEM jobs that are out there,” says Hudgins. “If we can get girls interested in STEM, we can change the national economy, and change innovation in America and across the world.”
With the 2013 Education Nation summit underway this week, it's the perfect time to think about how you can keep science and math cool for your girls.
Start young. Studies show that by fourth grade, girls start to lose confidence in their abilities to do math and science, thanks to a combination of societal and peer pressure. But encouraging your kids to love science and math long before that can help build their skills and enhance their confidence in the subject.
Explore with your kids. Consider the world your laboratory—and look around for ways you can explore the sciences with your kids. “You can talk with your kids about how engineers keep buildings up, and how people who are concerned with veterinary health and agriculture ensure that we have food,” Hudgins says. “Ask questions, and go on the journey with them.” Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and ask those what if and why questions, too. “You can be a learner with your kid, and experiment with things where you don’t really know what’s going to happen.” And look online or in your library for great experiments to try with your kids, and books to read together that explore the scientific subjects that most appeal to your kids, whether it’s atoms or zoology.
Look for enrichment programs that make science fun. Elementary-school teachers often have little time to devote to scientific exploration—so give your kids space to “play” with science, whether it’s through hands-on experiments at a local science center, or more formal after-school programs and summer camps that give your kids more focused time to tackle bigger projects.
Encourage your girls to stick with the sciences. In high school, challenge your daughters to take on the more advanced-level math and science courses—they may tap an undiscovered passion for chemistry or computer science.
Show your daughters how science can be applied to solve real-world problems. While boys often go into the STEM disciplines after enjoying toys and games that feature the hard sciences, girls often choose their career path based on how they can make a difference in the world. Showcasing to your daughters how the STEM disciplines can improve the lives of people, help the environment or make a difference can encourage them to explore these fields. “They see that there’s some value to it, that they can make a difference in the world,” Hudgins says. “So when we do robotics, we look for ways to apply it to real world problems, such as creating a robot that can go into an oil spill and save a pelican.”
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.