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In the Pursuit of STEM

One year ago, if someone mentioned “coding,” I pictured a turtleneck-clad man peering intensely through thick-rimmed glasses as he typed away gibberish computer jargon before a blinking monitor. To me, coding was an esoteric hobby enjoyed by an elite boys’ club. At school, the boys would flaunt their newly designed programs as if they were yachts and they were inviting their fellow programmers to join them for an afternoon cruise. On the television, I would watch shows like Star Trek and observe as men crowded around computer screens in an attempt to solve a complex system malfunction while pretty women flitted about in the background. Although I was never explicitly told that computer programming was not an appropriate pursuit for a girl--in fact, I was encouraged by so many people not to live by the expectations of society--the subtle hints were all around me. They had penetrated what I had thought to be my thick I-can-do-whatever-a-boy-can-do skin. I felt that I was undeserving of membership to that boys’ club and that earning a position for myself (or even coming close to a respectable level) would be immensely difficult and would require years of dedication and laborious work.

I had just started a research science class at school in which I was required to conduct a psychology experiment. After brainstorming countless ideas and listening to what my classmates had decided to do, I came to the realization that if I wanted to set myself apart from the other students, I would have to use programming in some way. Whether I were going to create a computerized task to administer to participants or to record and analyze data, all of my most interesting ideas required a specialized technique only accessible via the use of code. The idea was daunting to me, and I didn’t know where to start. Which programming language was I supposed to use? Was there special software I had to download? How was I going to learn to code and write an entire script in a matter of months? I asked around for suggestions, and, taking the first one I received, I purchased a student license for MATLAB.

With the help of an amazing mentor skilled in computer science at a tutoring center, I learned basic concepts and began to expand my knowledge of the computer science world. I discovered, to my surprise, that there was no need to memorize every function that had been created. I would gradually build my vocabulary as I ventured on different programming excursions, and if I ever needed a particular function or didn’t know how to structure a certain piece of my script, there was an abundance of documentation online that I could search through for answers. Additionally, most of the code that had to be written was an amalgamation of basic concepts in slightly modified formats. My coding endeavors began to excite me rather than stress me. With every new challenge I took on, I imagined myself as Dr. Frankenstein--restructuring and integrating pieces of knowledge I had already explored in order to create something entirely different.

Now, one year later, I consider myself to be more or less of a MATLAB expert. I am currently working on a variety of endeavors in MATLAB including, but not limited to, a pneumonia-detection computer-learning algorithm for lung x-rays, an ordinal judgment study utilizing eye-tracking data, and a social network model visualized with graph theory. I can’t imagine how I would be spending my time or how different my life would be had I not chosen to learn how to program, and I feel lucky every day that I chose a path which has provided me with so many opportunities. I am more inquisitive and more confident in my ability to tackle formidable questions than I ever was before, and I know that I will go on many more stimulating adventures in the future. Most importantly though, I now understand how important it is to provide settings for girls in which they feel comfortable pursuing endeavors in STEM.

A recent report by Microsoft (see the link below) compiled the results of surveys from over 6,000 girls and of interviews with nonprofit and academic experts. This comprehensive review pinpointed some of the most likely reasons for the large gender gap in STEM, listing the following:

  • Girls and young women have a hard time picturing themselves in STEM roles. They need more exposure to STEM jobs, female role models, and career awareness and planning.

  • Girls don’t initially see the potential for careers in STEM to be creative or to have a positive impact on the world. But, even a little exposure to real-world applications of STEM knowledge dramatically changes their outlook.

  • Girls who participate in STEM clubs and activities outside of school are more likely to say they will pursue STEM subjects later in their education. The kinds of experiments and experiences girls are exposed to in these activities can provide insights for how to enhance STEM instruction in the classroom.

  • Encouragement from teachers and parents makes a big difference in girls’ interest in STEM—especially when it comes from both teachers and parents.

  • Educators can foster a “growth mindset” among their female students by tapping into their willingness to work hard for results.

Although various other studies have identified lack of female role models and participation in STEM-related clubs and activities as critical vulnerabilities in a woman’s decision to pursue a career in STEM, I think it is interesting that this study highlights the issue that STEM is not often thought of as a creative field. Take the figure below from the report as an example.

I realize now that this actually might have been one of the reasons why I was so hesitant to pursue programming. Although far from the truth, the notion I held of computer coding was that it was not a medium through which I could express my creativity, that it was a language of limited vocabulary stifled by the need for proper syntax and structure. It is hard to believe I ever held that view, as I now know that programming language is tremendously diverse and versatile--probably even more so than the English language because of the ability to define your own “words” and create your own structure.

For this very reason, I wholeheartedly agree that the creativity inherent to STEM needs to be advertised or, better, experienced through hands-on activities in and outside of the classroom. In math, science, and programming classes, projects applying learned concepts to real world situations should be incorporated into the curriculum. Importance should be placed on the process of searching for the solution rather than simply knowing the right answer. In learning that math and science are not simply subjects in which you memorize facts, but fields in which you explore and discover, STEM can become an intriguing pursuit for boys and girls alike, and it can foster the desire for further investigation and inquiry.

To see Microsoft’s report, use the following link:

For suggestions on how to foster interest in STEM and ideas for hands on activities, use the following link:

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