Are Stories the Key to Engaging Girls in Science?

Scientific American has offered yet another approach to reduce the gender gap in STEM education. As study after study shows that female students demonstrate a lack of interest in becoming scientists, programmers and engineers in their later life, failure to deal with the problem could be depriving the country of a tremendous resource.

After tracking 1,500 college-bound students for over a decade, a study by the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania and University of Michigan found that even though women outscored men on both math and language portion of the SATs, a smaller percentage of them were planning to enroll in a STEM major in college. The chief author of the study concluded that the issue with the gender gap in STEM appears not from lack of skills, but rather lack of interest – and those interested in bringing more women into the sciences needed to focus on that key difference.

As educators in a STEM-focused high school, we come in contact with intellectually gifted female scientists every day–albeit young ones.  We also know there aren’t enough of them.   As a school, we struggle to attract young women who want to attend an engineering-focused high school in the first place.  In our time here, we’ve never had more girls than boys in any given class. Too often, our gender ratio is lopsided.  We know that this is not a result of ability.  As the Pittsburgh-Michigan study showed, and what we experience every day in our classrooms, is that there is no shortage of girls who could successfully pursue anything they wanted.  The girls in our school are brilliant and many do pursue careers in STEM-related fields.  However, some choose not to, and other smart girls never even make it through our front door. Why not?

Jonathan Olsen and Sarah Gross, guest-posting on SA, speculate that fewer women – especially those proficient in humanities – go into STEM because schools have found few ways to use humanities in the science curriculum. Women are interested in stories, and science has some interesting ones to tell. Yet very few science classes are designed around telling them to engage student interest.

Pop-science books like Bill Bryson’s “A Brief History of Nearly Everything” and Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” engage both genders equally and could do much to attract women to science — yet very few syllabi take advantage of these kinds of tales to add an emotional component to dry formulae.

Research has shown that storytelling activates the brain beyond mere word recognition.  In 2006, researchers in Spain discovered that stories stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life. Last year, a team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that similes and metaphors can activate sensory portions of the brain, and the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France discovered that action words can stimulate the motor cortex.  So if, as the recent study in Psychological Science shows, female students with high ability in both math and verbal areas tend to steer away from STEM careers, maybe it’s time to bring more of those verbal skills into the STEM classes for the benefit of these students.