Making STEM Accessible To All (VIDEO)

By studying social and cognitive development, Dr. Setoh Pei Pei works with parents and children to recognize the limitless possibilities offered by the world of STEM.

AsianScientist (May. 7, 2021) – If you struggle with calculus, is engineering the right fit for you or would you wave goodbye to STEM entirely? For many young students, their academic and career choices typically boil down to excelling in one field over another, deciding based on who they want to become—and who they believe they can become.

But these perceptions about aptitude, whether harbored by children or their parents, may be influenced by the gender gap. Among 67 countries, including the likes of Japan and Singapore, adolescent girls in majority of the surveyed nations were less confident about their scientific ability and had lower interest in the sciences than their male counterparts.

With little self-efficacy, potential scientific leaders can be dissuaded from certain career paths, despite being well and truly capable of pursuing them, said Dr. Setoh Pei Pei. As the director of the Early Cognition Laboratory at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, she leads research on the developmental processes that guide children to make sense of the world and learn about societal expectations.

“Among the most pressing social concerns is about inequality and social harmony. We are also concerned about how best to nurture our greatest asset, which is our children,” she shared.

Given the invaluable involvement of parents in nurturing their offspring, Setoh and her colleagues have studied the effects of parenting practices such as deception. When done to control children’s behavior, lying from parents reflected in children becoming more dishonest in turn. Worse still, Setoh shared that the children’s social and emotional welfare became wounded in the long run, compromising their psychological functioning as adults.

Clearly, childhood experiences aren’t just left in the past. Instead, they actively shape individuals’ present and future selves, molding what they value and how they act. Given that women make up less than a third of researchers globally, Setoh and her team are now investigating the stereotypes surrounding intelligence, with hopes of dispelling these notions as early as during childhood.

Funded by the Singapore Ministry of Education’s Social Science Humanities Research Fellowship, this five-year project dissects the belief that brilliance is inherently associated with males, linking this perception to participants’ career ambitions and confidence—or lack thereof—in their own abilities.

“A major gap in current knowledge about gender stereotypes is the paucity of research elucidating the developmental roots and transmission of gender stereotypes,” Setoh said.

For children to unlock their full potential, Setoh noted that it is vital to figure out what might be holding them back—and then support them to overcome it. When they believe that they have a place in science, children can build up their intellectual and emotional capacity to confront barriers and ultimately thrive in STEM.

According to Setoh, they are first exploring how these stereotypes become ingrained in both children and adults. In one study, parents will read interactive storybooks with their kids, with the researchers interested in uncovering how such media might influence perceived gender roles and career aspirations.

Meanwhile, another study is set to survey the beliefs of children and adults in Singapore about their suitability for different fields, including STEM disciplines. By analyzing the expanse of data from these initial studies, the team will then design and test various intervention strategies for knocking down stereotypes.

In all these research endeavors, Setoh is also championing citizen science. While her work as a developmental psychologist is already deeply rooted in social interactions, her lab’s projects place special emphasis on engaging the community in their research, treating them as collaborators rather than subjects.

“We gather early feedback from parents so we can design better studies that are more user-friendly,” she explained. “In turn, parents and educators get to learn about how science works and learn more about their child when we share our research findings with them.”

Beyond publishing the results, Setoh hopes that this active partnership will transmit the research back to the community. In line with fostering science literacy, involving citizens in the process of knowledge creation can spark their appreciation for research and its impact in the society.

Through these concerted efforts, Setoh is changing perceptions about STEM and uses research to back action plans for increasing representation in the scientific community. As diversity brings fresh perspectives to solving problems, she believes that progress will be more readily achieved when more women and girls pursue science.

“Gender diversity is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do for effective STEM research and development,” Setoh concluded. “By opening up children’s minds to a greater spectrum of educational and career possibilities, we empower girls to rise up—and ultimately strengthen our economic competitiveness.”


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Erinne Ong reports on basic scientific discoveries and impact-oriented applications, ranging from biomedicine to artificial intelligence. She graduated with a degree in Biology from De La Salle University, Philippines.

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