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To Raise Girls' Interest in STEM, Overcome These Three Beliefs

29/03/2016 08:30 | Updated 29 March 2016

As an arts aficionada taking STEM subjects -- in my case mathematics and information engineering, and computer science later this year -- I've noticed several beliefs that people who tend to avoid STEM hold. By changing these beliefs, I'm sure more girls will find STEM relevant and worth putting effort into.

Belief #1: We don't find STEM subjects beautiful

Recently I've interviewed former and current female mathematics students at my university, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, for a newsletter, and their common reason for doing mathematics was, to my surprise, that it was beautiful. Indeed, some mathematical notions, such as the Golden Ratio, are aesthetically appealing, and we may find ample examples in Renaissance artwork and in Google's new logo.

However, I found the claim that the subject itself was beautiful puzzling. I mean, popular attitudes dictate that we girls are supposed to be the beautiful ones, right? We dress up, put on makeup, do our hair and wear high heels. Our society imposes upon us the mandate to make ourselves beautiful. That has been our so-called idea of beauty, and sadly we also come to regard formulas and calculations as the same sort of imposition upon us. They're just artificial constructions to live with until we're old enough to forget about them.

One of the interviewees explained that mathematics played a role in nature, her inspiration being "Nature's Numbers" by mathematician Ian Stewart when she was younger. This was an eye-opener for me. We might begin by redefining beauty in STEM as the kind that comes through understanding, akin to the good character of a person, or breathtaking mountaintop views after a long quest. Substance is the new beauty.

Belief #2: We don't find STEM subjects relevant

Being told that maths was useful, I did my research and found it, indeed, to be the case. Mathematics is behind our smartphones and weather forecasts, while most of us reap its benefits without having to know everything about it. However, when mathematical models break down, people will need mathematicians to know what has gone awry, and the prospect of getting such esoteric insight was the tipping point that convinced me to forgo a potential writing career for a mathematical one.

However, in Hong Kong where I live, mathematics majors, especially girls, give the prevailing impression that they want to be teachers, and given my knowledge of mathematics in other disciplines, I feel that it is wrong to typecast STEM majors as preparation for teaching careers. It's as if the mathematics we learn was only good enough for making future students pass public examinations, but no further.

From the fall of Lehman Brothers to the rise of the robots, we need STEM to make sense of current affairs and trends that take our world by storm. Photography once took eight hours of standing or sitting still, but now we can snap pictures with our fingers or even by blinking. We can now communicate with people all over the world thanks to glass fibres and wireless technology. Technological advancements came about because of the unsung heroes in STEM, and no memorial is more fitting than knowing a little more about the STEM that impacts our lives, regardless of gender.

Belief #3: We prefer that others approach STEM subjects for us

The "someone else" syndrome at work again. "Yes, mobile phones require STEM, but not me. Yes, weather forecasts depend on mathematical models, but I don't care." Somehow we have taken for granted others doing the dirty work and crunching the numbers for us, while we passively enjoy the fruits of their labour.

Most girls find it hard to take the initiative to make a difference, but it's time we did. Why do we too need to learn about STEM? It's because too many things in our lives today depend on them. These days, nuclear arms, among other weapons, have fallen into dangerous hands, and we're forbidden to take water onboard because of terrorists who did. Without understanding viral epidemics like Ebola and Zika, we cannot fight them.

Mathematical algorithms protect our sensitive information and they need to be beefed up periodically because hackers are increasingly able to exploit them. Finally, we are reminded of Benjamin Disraeli's famous words "lies, damned lies and statistics": statistics can be used to solve or create problems. For instance, data collected by large companies can be used to create targeted ads or report whistleblowers to governments.

The beliefs above don't just affect girls. It is imperative that all of us become STEM-literate, because to disregard STEM is to put our lives and those of our loved ones at the mercy of STEM-literate devils. STEM literacy is not about calculations but on how we ought to live given the constraints and possibilities of nature and computers.

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