Florida’s high school girls were significantly underrepresented on the 2013 Advanced Placement examinations in calculus, physics and computer science – subjects that prepare them for college majors in the lucrative fields of engineering, physical sciences and computer science where they are also severely underrepresented at the undergraduate and professional levels.
The plots show that only 20% of the students taking the 2013 AP Computer Science test (and 16% of those passing with a score of 3 or better on the 5-point AP scale) in Florida were girls. Only 18% of the bachelors’ degrees in computer science awarded nationally in 2012 went to women, according to the National Science Foundation. The situation in physics – which leads to careers in engineering and the physical sciences – was only a little better. On the algebra-based Physics B exam, 33% of the test takers and 28% of the test passers were girls, while girls were even more strongly underrepresented on the calculus-based Physics C exams in mechanics and electricity and magnetism. Only 18% of the nation’s bachelors’ degrees in engineering were awarded to women in 2012. The American Institute of Physics reports that women earned only 21% of the bachelors’ degrees in physics conferred in 2010.
The situation in calculus is somewhat better: 48% of Florida students who took the Calculus AB exam (and 44% of those who passed) were girls. Calculus AB is equivalent to a first-semester college calculus course. However, the corresponding proportions of girls in the next AP calculus course, Calculus BC, are considerably lower. Only 38% of the Calculus BC exam takers and 37% of the exam’s passers were girls.
The take-away from these results and the corresponding results for minority students is that those wishing to address the underrepresentation of women and minorities in the fields of engineering, physics and computer science at the undergraduate and professional levels must roll up their sleeves and get hands-on about intervening at the K-12 level, even though those running the K-12 system have little or no interest in this issue. I am no fan of code.org, but the organization certainly deserves credit for addressing the K-12 situation head-on. The engineering and physics communities must do the same or face continuing decline.