Low participation in math and science activities by girls is keeping them from achieving their full potential and is weakening the nation’s ability to compete, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said May 15 at the first annual National Summit on the Advancement of Girls in Math and Science.

“We need definitive insights into what goes wrong, when, and why,” Spellings said. She asked her department’s Institute of Education Sciences to review existing research and determine why girls are not as well represented in the sciences as boys.

Schools have put more emphasis on math in the past five years because of the No Child Left Behind law, which requires testing and yearly progress in the subject.

“This is all about global competitiveness,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said at the summit, which was sponsored by the Education Department and the National Science Foundation. “We cannot do what we need to do to create high-skill, high-wage jobs for our country if we write off the prospects of half our population.”

Speakers at the meeting noted that women have been the driving force behind economic growth over the past several decades. Yet, government data show that girls fall behind boys in math and science as they progress through school.

In the fourth grade, 68 percent of boys and 66 percent of girls say they like science, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But only one-third of high school students enrolled in Advanced Placement physics classes are girls, Spellings told summit attendees. At the college level, she continued, fewer than one-fifth of engineering majors are women.

Former astronaut Sally Ride suggested several strategies for keeping girls interested in math and science, including involving them in after-school or summer programs. She also recommended introducing girls to women scientists.

“Allow them to put a female face on these careers,” she said.

Ride–who founded Sally Ride Science, an organization that creates content and incentives to get girls more interested in science–emphasized the importance of involving parents and preventing the perpetuation of stereotypes that girls are not good at math or science.

Spellings said mothers can inadvertently send signals to their daughters that math skills are not important.

“I can’t tell you how frustrated I get when I hear otherwise intelligent adults–frequently women–brag about their inability to balance a checkbook or calculate a tip,” Spellings said. “We would never brag about being unable to read a street sign or a prescription bottle.”

Educators must change the culture so it is not acceptable for women to brag about such things, she said.

A National Mathematics Advisory Panel created in April by President Bush is scheduled to issue an initial report on how to improve math teaching by the end of next January. The panel’s final report is expected a month later.

Math advisory panel members were announced at the summit. They are Deborah Ball, dean of the school of education and professor at University of Michigan; Nancy Ichinaga, former principal of Bennett-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood, Calif.; Jim Simons, president of Renaissance Technologies Corp. and former chairman of the mathematics department at State University of New York at Stony Brook; and Diane Jones of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The panel’s findings will be used to inform Math Now, a proposed federal program that aims to improve student performance in math. The program is based on the currently successful Reading First program. Math Now would be federally funded, though dollar amounts had not been determined at press time.