Bloom on the STEM

MIT-Women-Engineering_0Among many excellent presentations that I attended at the recent World Council for Gifted and Talented Children’s Conference, I was present when Professor Helen Watt, from Monash University, shared her keynote presentation, Harnessing girls’ and women’s talent potentials in STEM domains. The Office of the Chief Scientist released a report in 2013 that identified increased female participation in STEM fields as a key strategy as Australia progresses towards 2025. Despite a clear identification of equivalent abilities, females in this country still participate in STEM at a lower level than males and Australia continues to trail behind many OECD countries in this area. Professor Hall shared her findings, especially identified gendered differences in STEM motivation, from her longitudinal research.

mathematicsOne of the key findings from this research is that Maths remains a ‘critical filter’ for both genders being able to access a range of STEM tertiary courses and later, the associated STEM-related careers. There has been a steady Australian decline in the number of students taking advanced Maths subjects at Year 12 and this has limited the number of students commencing certain STEM tertiary courses. It was found that students with higher self-concept exhibited higher levels of participation in Maths.

This research considered STEM motivation related to students’ interest, attainment, perception of the subject or the course’s utility value, perceptions of talent and any related costs, including psychological, social, effort, financial and opportunity costs. It was found that female students tended to focus upon the value and purpose for undertaking a subject or course and the perceived benefit to society as important considerations when deciding about certain subjects or enrolling in a STEM tertiary course.

As this was longitudinal research, there were important findings associated with earlier development and later outcomes. Gender differences associated with self-concept and values were evident as early as when a child is two years of age. Decisions related to the costs (listed above) had long-term impacts, including to the individual’s psychological well-being and financial equity across genders. Despite earlier subject choices, over time, an upward incline was identified in the level stem1of maths required in many occupations.

Professor Hall proposed that more differentiated educational settings are required if students are to be encouraged to enrol in STEM subjects at school and in tertiary courses at university level. It was proposed that the earlier subject specialisation in this country tended to amplify gender differences in STEM subjects. Educational transition points appear to be very important and she indicated that students may require support and encouragement to commence and continue to participate in challenging academic subjects, such as advanced Maths, that act as a ‘critical filter’ for access to further STEM courses and career opportunities.

© Michele Juratowitch