/  April 10, 2017

How early do girls decide math isn't for them?

Andrew Meltzoff, the Job and Gertrud Tamaki Endowed Chair in Psychology and co-director of the University of Washington Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS), was interviewed recently by Southern California Public Radio on the topic of boys, girls, and math anxiety. The segment and accompanying story make for fascinating listening and reading. In a wide-ranging chat, Meltzoff, who studies early childhood development, spoke of his work trying to identify the point at which children absorb gender-specific stereotypes and social biases. “It's connected to the idea that even from birth and early infancy, before there’s language, children are highly socially attuned,” he said. “They watch what we do and they pick up lessons from watching us.”

In this case, Meltzoff wanted to determine when girls start to internalize the idea that they aren’t as good at math as boys. In the course of the interview, he referred to a “special test.” Children, he explained, were shown an object or visual image, and then pushed a button to assign that object or image to a boy or girl. “They were supposed to push, for instance, a left button if this object is something that went with girls, or a right button if it was something that went with boys,” he said. “It’s sometimes called an implicit stereotype or implicit bias test, and we were able to adapt this test so it could be used for little children, elementary school children.”

When Meltzoff gave the test to those children, he found that both boys and girls spontaneously identified that numbers went with boys, and letters with girls. This was before the children had even been taught their multiplication tables! “We were able to discover with these implicit tests that kids as early as second grade shared some of the stereotypes that [American adults] had,” he said.

Here at CoMotion, Meltzoff’s special test has a special resonance: it was the innovation that led to the first patent ever issued to UW’s I-LABS. CoMotion worked with the inventors—Dr. Meltzoff, Dario Cvencek, and Anthony Greenwald—to prepare a successful software patent application. CoMotion’s Express License self-service website offers users access to obtain the software code and the keyboard mentioned in the article. It’s one of the many ways that CoMotion strives to be the innovation partner for the entire UW research community.