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Parents Play a Crucial Role in Building Kids’ Interest in Science and Math

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Earlier this week the Girl Scouts, which turns 100 this year, released an interesting report on teenage girls’ attitudes toward science and math. Some highlights:

  • 74 percent of girls ages 14 to 17 report an interest in science, technology, engineering or math (known as STEM)
  • Parents play a major role in getting their kids interested in these subjects. Two-thirds of the girls who reported an interest in science, math or engineering had mothers or fathers who encouraged these interests, as compared to only one-third of girls who reported little interest in STEM. This is true of both genders, as the role of parents has come up a lot in similar studies, particularly this one by Jon D. Miller of the University of Michigan.
  • Hispanic and African-American girls report an even higher interest in STEM than caucasian girls.
  • There is a gap between girls’ interest in STEM subjects and their desire to pursue a career as a scientist or engineer. The No. 1 career choice of science-interested girls was medicine/healthcare, which does not technically qualify as a STEM career. Arts/design, followed by social science, entertainment, and communications/media were the next four most popular choices. Physical/life sciences came in sixth place, with 57 percent of STEM-interested girls placing it first. Among non-science-interested girls, arts/design and entertainment were the two top career choices.
  • Why the gap? Peer pressure and gender stereotypes may play a role, as 57 percent of all respondents said girls their age don’t typically consider a career in science or in technical fields. Also, many girls may not be making the connection that a science career can help them achieve their goals. According to the report, girls want a career that will allow them to help people (94 percent of STEM-interested girls; 83 percent of non-STEM) and to make a difference in the world (92 percent of STEM-interested girls; 82 percent of non-STEM).

Studies like this are a reminder to adults to be active in exposing kids to the full breadth of what they can do with their lives. Let’s remind kids to give equal weight to literature, the arts and math and science.

Here are a few activities that can get you started:

  • Help scientists make discoveries about the structure of the eye.
  • Help marine biologists study whale songs.
  • Build a simple or more complex bridge.
About the Author: Anna Kuchment is a Contributing Editor at Scientific American and a staff science writer at The Dallas Morning News. She was previously a reporter, writer and editor with Newsweek magazine. She is also author of “The Forgotten Cure,” about bacteriophage viruses and their potential as weapons against antibiotic resistance. Follow on Twitter @akuchment.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. MariaDroujkova 11:34 pm 02/17/2012

    I am not sure what would happen if all 74% of girls who are interested in science went on to have scientific careers! But as the situation now stands, we need to provide opportunities for our girls to be science hobbyists and casual scientists, too. Maybe activities like self-tracking for health, or local environmental projects?

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  2. 2. JamesDavis 3:52 pm 02/18/2012

    Parents should be, and most parents are, involved in every aspect of their child’s life and they encourage them to dabble in many different interests. Maybe that is the problem, but very doubtful. The main problem is our outdated and prehistoric educational system. The second major problem with girls getting into science is a like of interest. Girls just don’t seem to be as interested in science and engineering as boys. The four years I taught Architectural and Mechanical Engineering, there was no girls in any of the classes. The school tried to encourage the girls to enroll in the class; they even promised to double their credits, and that started an uproar, but they didn’t seem to be interested in wanting to know how to build a Roman Arch or the tinsel strength of a 12×12 or that of a steel I beam. It is very unwise to try and force someone into doing something they do not want to do…people always seem to get hurt.

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  3. 3. Bonnie Nordby 8:40 pm 02/18/2012

    I find it disappointing that medicine/healthcare are not considered science careers at least in this study. How common place is this distinction? And how did it arise and what is the parameters of what is a scientist then?

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  4. 4. collettedesmaris 1:32 am 02/20/2012

    I found the title of this article; and the content within it; astounding.

    “Parents play a crucial role in building kid’s interest in Science and Math.”
    Since when did that become news??

    And, this statement from the article (and I quote the author):
    “Studies like this are a reminder to all adults, and especially to parents, that they are responsible for introducing kids to the full breadth of what they can do with their lives.”

    Duh!! In the world I come from, that’s always been a “given”. If the author of this article abided by the principles and the standards of practice that are followed by the Society of Professional Journalists, then she spent a lot of time diligently gathering, interpreting, and thus, reporting the information in this article. Providing she owns such a dedication to this type of ethical behavior, then what that translates into as relating to this article, is that the parenting in our society has become so poor, that an article like this needs to be written. That’s a scary thought.

    If today’s parents are not fulfilling their primary responsibility of guidance,then what are they doing? It is well-known that a child is a product of his or her environment; and it escapes me how a parent would fail to participate in their child’s life to the point where they need to be reminded what their primary role is; in that child’s life. I’d be very interested in
    the author providing sources of information beyond just the “STEM” percentages – and, I certainly hope the entire theme of this article was not based solely on those percentages. Because, the theme of this article paints a picture of drastic negligence on the part of parents; by default; due to the fact that the article was even deemed necessary.

    Regardless of what subject we’re talking about …. whether it be Math, Science, Music, Geography, or Cooking – all children have an idea; early on, of “what they want to be when they grow up”. They think about what they want to be, because that is their natural calling. It’s really quite simple. The best way in which any parent can help guide their child,
    is to pay attention and listen for the time when the child arrives at the point of self-discovery and says, “I wanna be an actress when I grow up.” or, “I wanna be a Fireman when I grow up.” or, “I wanna be a
    Doctor when I grow up.” or, “I wanna be a Teacher when I grow up.” You get my drift. Once the child makes the statement, then the parent should foster that desire and provide the necessary guidance to see that the child is routed to the path necessary to provide the appropriate education to help the child acquire their goal. I reiterate: they have the dream of what they want to be when they grow up, because it is their natural calling.

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  5. 5. ErnestPayne 4:53 pm 02/20/2012

    Don’t forget the power of grandparents. My father was a Mechanical Engineer and both my daughter and one of my nieces wanted to become Engineers thanks to his influence (one did the other works for Apple). The good men do does live after them.

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