While reading another story about the lack of diversity in STEM I was newly struck by the following statement, which I've heard in various forms over the years (emphasis mine):
"I think science is seen as a man's world by a lot of people," said Candy DeBerry, associate professor of biology at Washington & Jefferson College. "All the studies show that somewhere around sixth or seventh grade, girls start losing their interest in science but might be equally interested in it in the third or fourth grade."
For me, sixth grade was spent in elementary school. I had one teacher, unless you counted the music, art, or gym teachers. We almost always had one computer (a TRS-80 or an Apple II/IIe) in our classroom, which the teacher actually knew something about and which we kids would typically fight over using. Even the few kids who had computers at home (like me) wanted to use the computer at school, and we'd rush to finish an assignment so we could get in some computer time.
Seventh grade was the start of junior high school for me, and thus began the hourly switching of subjects, teachers, and classrooms. In none of these classrooms did we have a computer, and I don't ever remember my teachers mentioning computers. In junior high, the only computers I can recall were in the library, and they weren't the sort that you "played" with. In addition, all of the extra-curricular activities I was starting took away from potential computer time at home.
So when I keep hearing about this crucial sixth/seventh grade time period for young girls, I can't help but think back to my own experience around these grades. I didn't lose interest in computers (or science or math) in seventh grade, but I was certainly separated from them. As time went on, I had less time to pursue those interests myself, and in some cases I was discouraged from pursuing them.
Sure, times have changed, but as the old saying goes, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Thus I'm inclined to assume that my experience may not really be that different from what kids experience today. Kids can't stay in the elementary school environment forever, but with middle schools now starting at fifth and sixth grade, are we pushing change -- not just academic and environmental, but social! -- on them too soon, thus potentially losing more future scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians?