How Encouragement Fosters Curiosity and Growth

I recently had a conversation with a friend who told me her daughter has declared that she hates math — and she’s only seven years old! This got me thinking that the challenge for parents is to help their kids keep an open mind about the subjects they like or don’t like. It’s really important that parents keep exposing their kids to different things and different opportunities, and make sure that they don’t close the door on new ones.
Education of the workforce really starts at the K-12 level, so it is important that we help young people get a solid education in math and science. This will keep more choices available to them when they decide what study in college and what kind of career to pursue later in life.
Lately, I’ve observed my two kids’ classroom and thought about ways that we can teach young minds to be interested in technology, math and science. One way to do this is to highlight the connection between technology and real life applications — how technology has really changed the way we work, live, play and learn. Sharing our observations of how technology pervades our day-to-day activities is very important. Parents like myself need to talk about our experience with this, and do it often.
I’ve read a number of studies about gender gaps and the lack on interest in technology, math and science among young girls. A common misconception and one reason for young girls’ lack of interest is the image they feel is associated with a “nerdy” woman, like an engineer. Girls don’t want to be branded as “nerdy” for fear that it may cause them to lose favor among boys (and other girls.) I think that’s only part of the problem.
Parents have huge influence over their kids, sometimes more than they recognize. We are not taking advantage of the fact that both parents and teachers can be a significant force in shaping a girl’s attitude about technology, math and science.
Another reason for girls’ lack of interest in technology, math and science is the lack of appealing female role models. Wouldn’t it be great if Jessica Simpson would take the role of a smart woman engineer or techie in a sci-fi film? This issue needs national attention and government support. Without recognizing that the lack of women in these fields is a problem of national proportion, we as a country are setting ourselves up for failure. Meanwhile, girls are missing out on amazing career opportunities that are just as, if not more, suitable for them as they are for boys.
Mentoring is an excellent approach for introducing technology at a young age. I personally have a mentoring program here at Cisco to help connect girls with some of the brilliant technical role models we have on staff. Until digital classrooms and online resources are equally available at a national level, parents, teachers and corporations need to take a proactive approach in the way that we teach and relate to girls who are considering these fields for the first time.
Every girl is different, with different talents and interests. There is no one program that is going to work for all girls, but I think a good place to start is the NCWIT website where they can find out what technical careers they might find fun and interesting. This is a place where parents and friends can help by showing young women these resources and talking about the vast array of programs available in technology, math and science.

Van T. Dang is VP and Deputy General Counsel at Cisco Systems.

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