Future for Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math

As I read the Washington Post article by Anna Holmes entitled, “Technically, science will be less lonely for women when girls are spurred early,” I felt my heart grow heavy when I encountered the following quote from Jennifer Skaggs, a University of Kentucky education researcher: “We are back to the beauty versus brains saga, in which girls entering middle school feel forced to ask themselves, ‘Do I want to be smart in math, or do I want to be seen as attractive?’” Skaggs, who authored the June 2011 paper, “Making the Blind to See: Balancing STEM Identity with Gender Identity,” is also quoted as saying, “If a female is seen as technically competent, she is assumed to be socially incompetent. And it works the other way around.”

Exciting the imagination and potential of girls to pursue technical fields

Exciting the imagination and potential of girls to pursue technical fields

I can’t believe that, in 2011, we still haven’t found a way to encourage girls to be confident in pursuing science, math, and technology courses in middle school and high school. I was in high school 20 years ago, and it never crossed my mind that I would not be popular, attractive, or boys would not like me because I was smart and took every advanced math and science course that was available. I was excited and pleased to let everyone in my high school know that I planned to be an engineer and attend one of the top 25 engineering schools in the country. Where have we, as a society, gone wrong when, 20 years later, we actually have fewer girls pursuing these fields?

I feel fortunate to be able to represent Microsoft as the company’s lead for Women in Research, Science, and Engineering. As I travel the world and meet with amazing researchers, I feel confident that we will solve this problem in the next decade. I would like to highlight a couple of projects that are taking on this challenge:

  • Computer Game Design: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Addressing Underrepresentation in Computing is a project being conducted by Jill Denner at ETR Associates and Michael Mateas, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, and Teale Fristoe (faculty members and students) from the University of California at Santa Cruz Computer Science Department’s computer game design lab. Research suggests that many children, especially girls, want to create games based on dynamic relationships, social interactions, and storytelling. But game creation tools for beginners have not offered support for game mechanics that would enable such games. The project team’s work is Kodu AI Lab, which is a set of extensions to Microsoft Kodu Game Lab that enables the design of just such games. Targeted at middle-school girls, the team hopes to foster girls’ interest in computer technologies.
  • The Future Science Leaders program is led by Katherine Blumdell, Oxford University, for early-career women researchers in physics, math, and computer-science fields. The objective is to explore challenges that scientists face today, techniques for scientists to succeed in research, and to educate today’s and tomorrow’s scientists. The speakers at the 2010 workshop included Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the Nobel Laureate William D. Phillips from Maryland, and Professor Alyssa Goodman from Harvard. The program was funded, in part, by a Royal Society prize that Blumdell was awarded last year (given in honor of Rosalind Franklin, who pioneered research in DNA) for the promotion of women in sciences. After attending the workshop, each program participant presents her research at two high schools (one in her university city and one in her home town, to avoid excessive travel costs). The benefit: high-school students get to attend a talk by a young scientist who can be a role model—particularly for young women—and spark student interest in the sciences. In addition, the young scientists gain useful experience in speaking about their research.

Encouraging women in the pursuit of computer science education is important to us at Microsoft Research. We offer support through the following two Microsoft Research Connections programs.

  • The Microsoft Research Graduate Women’s Scholarship Program is a one-year scholarship program for outstanding women graduate students and is designed to help increase the number of women pursuing a PhD in computer science, electrical engineering, or mathematics. This program supports women in the second year of their graduate studies. Women who are interested in this scholarship must apply during their first year of graduate studies. We began accepting applications on August 16. To be considered, all applications must be submitted by Thursday, October 6, 2011, 11:59 P.M. Pacific Time.
  • The Microsoft Research PhD Fellowship Program is a two-year fellowship for outstanding women and men in their third and fourth years of PhD graduate studies in the United States or Canada, with a research focus in computer science, mathematics, or electrical engineering. This program supports women and men in their third and fourth years of PhD graduate studies. We began accepting applications for 2012 on August 16. To be considered, all applications must be submitted by the office of the university department chair by Thursday, October 6, 2011, 11:59 P.M. Pacific Time.

In the coming months, we will highlight projects and programs that Microsoft Research Connections will support to cultivate the next generation of women professionals in research, science, and engineering around the world.

Rane Johnson, Principal Research Director, Microsoft Research Connections

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