Teachers must tell girls they ‘belong’ in science, says NASA’s chief scientist

Teachers must make girls feel that they “belong” in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects, to avoid their having to “fake it” in later life, NASA’s chief scientist said.

Ellen Stofan, who has held a number of roles at the US space agency since the early 1990s, said she had often felt the need to “fake” that she belonged at the organisation because she is a woman.

It was up to schools and their teachers to make sure that girls never had to pretend that they were confident working in the Stem industries.

Speaking to TES at the education technology conference Bett, Dr Stofan said telling girls that they had every right to be working in the Stem industries did more to switch girls on to science than other interventions.

“A lot of studies have shown that girls tend to be a little less confident. Where that confidence comes from is by teachers telling them: ‘You belong. You’re good at this. You should do this’,” she said.

“I think from my generation we didn’t get that as much so we had to fake some of that confidence. Programmes that we do now, like our girls codathon programme, they are the kinds of initiatives that mean girls don’t have to fake it,” she added.

Dr Stoffan was no doubt given such advice herself due to the fact her father, Andrew Stofan, was a rocket engineer at NASA, but she said teachers have an essential role to play.

“Research has shown that just by telling girls they belong and they should go into science actually makes a bigger difference than role models and special programmes,” she said.

“A lot of the reasons that under-represented groups and girls don’t go into science is because they don’t see anyone who looks like them. And they’re not getting the encouragement to say: ‘You belong’. Just telling girls they belong is enough to tip the balance.”

Giving her keynote speech, Dr Stofan said that even her astronaut colleagues who are women have felt the need to “fake it”.

“When you walk into a room you can’t just sit at the back, you have to sit at the table. I have a really good friend who is an astronaut and she said a lot of the time she had to fake it. She said she didn’t feel brave enough. She said: ‘I didn’t feel courageous enough, so I faked it’.”

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