A shortened – and less ribald – version of this post was published 24-07-2017 in the International Business Times.
Ah, the transition from middle school to high school… the one part of adolescence no one reminisces about fondly. It’s the time in our lives where mental and physical changes happen at pace without any apparent continuity, and we feel compelled to blend in. This is the same time when most young girls’ interest in STEM stops, and in my educator/zoologist opinion, these events are related.
What does our culture gear teenage girls to prioritize? Making varsity teams, growing boobs to the correct size and at the correct time, and completing enough social jostling to earn the superhuman prom date. Most of the STEM-geared young girls I have worked with couldn’t care less about the above – but the attitude of their peers changes by the end of 8th grade.
Students of both sexes in 6th grade will happily discuss how rainbows are made and share their mutual wonder if the natural world, but those conversations quickly become “immature” when the puberty plague takes hold. It’s also in 8th grade when boys enter a race to the bottom of inappropriate jokes fueled by mutual insecurities. Suddenly, STEM-interested pupils find that their friends are segregating, fashion forward girls to one side and crude boys to the other, leaving a handful who want to discuss the space/time continuum floundering somewhere in the middle.
Then, regardless of where you sit on the social divide, hormones kick in. This critical time is when young people figure out how to create partnerships, what constitutes a good or bad relationship, and the physics of copulation. In addition to this, obtaining a socially higher-ranking partner becomes an unconscious priority. Guess what most young men think is unattractive in women? Intelligence (unless you’re beautiful enough to compensate). YOU READ THAT CORRECTLY.
Everyone wants to be cool in high school, or rather, no one wants to be regarded as uncool. So, if you fall in that handful of STEMmettes, you priority becomes blending in – being neither cool or uncool. However, it becomes increasingly impossible to blend in when you are a high-achieving female in STEM. I was one of four girls in AP Physics during my junior year. I remember desperately trying to hide my massive physics book while walking class, and I would especially avoid overlapping the route of my socially higher-ranked crush. Yet there was no solace once I finally reached the classroom, as I would often find sketches of scurrilous scrotums all over my workbook by any one of the 21 boys in class (but we all know it was Gary). Group work was always a chore, as boys at that age are more interested in discussing boner mechanics than Newtonian. Plus, let us not forget that AP STEM courses are all bloody difficult! It is both a socially and academically easier route to take less advanced STEM subjects, especially for young girls.
Thus, you end up with less young girls participating in AP exams even though they regularly score higher than their male counterparts. Less young women participate in mathletics, quiz bowl, or robotics club – even though membership in these clubs looks brilliant on college applications. To do any of the above devalues your coolness currency at the same rate it exposes you as an anomalous girl.
“Coolness” is a valuable currency during high school that quickly dissipates once you hit college, but it’s an important element of outreach that must be considered at that level. Sharks have-and have always had-loads of coolness currency, and there is an abundance of excellent research and scientific concepts being tackled via elasmobranchs by outgoing scientists. Is studying conductivity “cool” to high schoolers? Not necessarily, but how SPOTs work on great white sharks is. Is nomenclature and classification cool? Not for the majority, but building your own shark is (and so is the Chondrichthyan Tree of Life).
Science-focused socially active groups targeting young girls (like the Gills Club – 🚨bias alert🚨) are desperately important. Such groups have the power to change social dynamics by putting the currency of cool into science. STEM becomes the thing that allows you to learn about shark tagging, go out on a boat, and talk to badass scientists. This is also why effective outreach needs to be tangible and not only exist on social media. Inspirational facebook posts are great, but they don’t counter-act the awkwardness of high school STEM – spotting sharks on the weekend does. You won’t hide your physics book when it has shark pictures all over it.
While the culture around attractive female intelligence is progressing in many countries, some countries are taking… YUGE… steps backward. In the meantime, we need to teach young people that intelligence is cool, a gift, and not something to compromise.
I mean, just look at how goddamn cool Vicky is!