Want your daughter to succeed in science? Get her in the gym!

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My 17 year-old daughter Carissa loves science and wants to be a pediatric neurosurgeon someday.  Her younger gymnastics teammate, 10 year-old Jackie loves science as well and aspires to be a chemist.  Last weekend, they spent a few hours of teammate bonding mixing things up with Jackie’s brand new chemistry set.

Not only does this make me happy to see Carissa, who benefited from so many of her older teammates attention and guidance, take the time to mentor her younger teammate, it thrills me to see these two girls engrossed in science.

Fewer girls pursue science as I wish did.  In fact, the gender gap between men and women’s engagement in science is pretty wide.  As first year college students, women are much less likely than men to indicate that they intend to major in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subject.

In a report called Why So Few?, it is noted that “by graduation, men outnumber women in nearly every science and engineering field, and in some, such as physics, engineering and computer science, the difference is dramatic, with women only earning 20 percent of the bachelor degrees.”

You might wonder what the big deal is about the gender gap in STEM fields.  Let me assure you, it is a very big deal.

Celia Islam, a senior in high school, explained the significance of the gender gap quite eloquently in her blog for the Huffington Post: “In a country in which the average women still earns 77 cents for every dollar that a man earns, and in a country in which the majority of single parents are single mothers, getting more women into STEM could both reduce the gender wage gap and ensure that single mothers don’t have to struggle to put food on the table. Not only are there currently more jobs in STEM than in any other industry, but most of these high-tech jobs are high paying, as well. According to the National Council for Women and Information Technology, there will be around 1.4 million computer specialist job openings expected in the U.S. by 2020. Women have the capability to hold 50 percent of those jobs.”  But with so few pursuing those degrees, women will come nowhere close to holding those positions.

There are many movements underway to get girls more interested in STEM majors.  This holiday season, the toy companies like GoldieBlox called attention to their girl-inspired engineering toys with a fantastic commercial that took the Internet by storm.

But it turns out there might be another thing that encourages girls to achieve in school, particularly in science: sports.

According to a study that followed over 5,000 11 year-old children’s physical activity, girls who were more physically active at age 11 performed at a higher level in school.  Furthermore, the girls who were most active were much better at science than their less active female peers.

And that difference remained consistent over the next five years.  When the same girls were re-tested at ages 13 and 16 the girls that had been most physically active at age 11 were still much better at science than less active girls.

While the study cannot definitively prove that increase exercise is what caused the improvement of the girls’ scores, the correlation is strong enough to raise suspicion.  Furthermore, it has been demonstrated in other studies that exercise improves brain function, so there seems to be some evidence to suggest that exercise could help.

Another theory might be that sports participation for girls can help reduce the likelihood of traditional gender-role stereotyping with respect to academic aptitude.  Or that the increased self-esteem associated with sports participation allows female athletes to take risks (like pursuing a STEM major) that their non-athletic peers might not.

In any case, while more studies need to be conducted to definitively demonstrate the causation between athletic girls and STEM majors, it is an interestingly compelling hypothesis that athletics might contribute to girls’ achievement in STEM areas.

So get your daughters into the gym, and on the way home, consider stopping off and picking up a chemistry set or a GoldieBlox toy for her!