Support + confidence = interest in math

A new study shows that a little encouragement can help girls become more interested in math and science.

Topics: Broadsheet, Science, Love and Sex,

Got a daughter who just doesn’t like math and science? Don’t give up on talking her into becoming an engineer just yet. New research suggests that “the self-confidence instilled by parents and teachers is more important for young girls learning math and science than their initial interest.”

In a three-year study — the most detailed of its kind so far — vocational psychologists at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee set out to determine what barriers are holding girls back from excelling in math and science, and what kind of support made interest and achievement in those subjects more likely. They found the obstacles to success were different in math and science, and at different developmental stages, but “parent support and expectations emerged as the top support in both subjects and genders for middle- and high-school students. Also powerful for younger girls were engaging teachers and positive experiences with them.” Not surprisingly, the perception — shared by both genders — that teachers have higher expectations for boys in those subjects was found to encourage boys and discourage girls. In keeping with the findings of other studies we’ve written about, it seems that the supposed lack of interest in math and science among girls might actually just be a lack of confidence — and more encouragement from parents and teachers along the way could help close the gap. Says one of the study’s authors, Nadya Fouad, “If they feel they can do it, it feeds their interest.”

Kate Harding is the co-author of "Lessons From the Fatosphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce With Your Body" and has been a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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