Jul 11, 2012

It's my thing: A new approach to girls and STEM

For those who follow me regularly, you may have noticed decline in post frequency. My apologies! If you were able to see me in person, you would know why... I'm currently in my last month of pregnancy. Needless to say, I've been a bit busy.
on tpt's SciGirls

We are expecting a little boy (or so they tell me). My husband and I are very happy, but a part of me was a bit dismayed when I heard the news, "Shucks, there goes a practical use of my expertise on how to get girls interested in STEM."

Well, just because I have a boy coming into the world (cursed or blessed by having two parents who are engineers and total science geeks), doesn't mean that I have to abandon my strong interest in females in STEM. And thank goodness! There are some interesting studies coming out that pique my engineering mind into formulating ways to use them to create meaningful, effective, inclusive curriculum.


One that caught my eye recently was My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls which found that middle school girls were actually discouraged from STEM areas if the role model presented was too feminine. Practically speaking, this means that having a drop-dead gorgeous, highly-fashioned woman physicist might actually drive girls away from STEM rather than send the message that they can do it. The thoughts are that being stunningly feminine and good at STEM seem so unattainable that girls give up completely.

This may explain my own issues as a teen with Marie Curie and Lillian Moller Gilbreth. When I was younger, my parents, the physicist and the chemist, gave me biographies about Marie Curie, a physicist and chemist, who used education as a way to rebel against the tyranny of Russian Empire. When I was in 6th grade, I read a chapter from Cheaper by the Dozen, which introduced me to Lillian Moller Gilbreth, a pioneer in industrial engineering, her husband Frank, and their bevy of children. The second book, Belles on Their Toes underlined how this woman engineer was also womanly: kind mother, career woman, creative entrepreneur. 

As I headed into the 80's, I had a sense that a woman could have it all. But then, in my teen years I realized, I didn't see any more role models. This was the day of the "draw a scientist" test when people were hard-pressed to come up with any scientist who wasn't male. This dearth of other role models depressed me: How come the only models I saw were these two? These were what I had to live up to? I felt depressed at the prospect, like if you gave a young boy scientist Albert Einstein as his only role model. These were top women: Marie Curie had two Nobel prizes, plus a daughter who went into chemistry and also won a Nobel prize. Lillian Gilbreth was (later) a single mother and raised 11 children and became a professor at Purdue University as a leader in her field. Success seemed unattainable if I had only these two women to look up to. Thank goodness I had my mother as well. Brilliant herself, there was a lot of her that was more realistic and down-to-earth because I knew her; she seemed more reasonable a role model.

In light of this study, it's not surprising that the European Commissions' attempt to jumpstart girls' interest in STEM with "Science: It's a Girl Thing" met with controversy. The question became: Does simply merging one stereotype (glasses-clad male scientist) with another (curvy clothed, high-heeled, made-up girls) and adding a hip soundtrack make STEM more appealing to girls? 

The disappointment of the critics seemed to arise more from the fact that the video did little to present why science (or STEM in general) would be appealing to girls. This communication aspect is at the heart of the latest study from the Girl Scouts, Generation STEM: What Girls Say About Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. The gist is that despite the press that girls aren't choosing to study STEM, girls actually are interested in STEM if one presents STEM as how things work, solving puzzles and problems, and doing hands-on science projects.

The trick of being a teacher or parent of girls is not just to keep the door to STEM open, but to also allow them to explore their full potential. I have always felt that STEM, particularly engineering, was inherently appealing to women, if you actually showed them what it really was all about.

In 2002, when I first developed the Makin' and Breakin': Engineering in Your World course at St. Kate's, an education colleague told me that her husband, an engineer, complained that women weren't going into engineering. His ultimate reasoning was based on the idea that women weren't interested in the same thing that men were: being involved in the stereotypical pursuit of the superlative -- the faster, larger, more powerful devices. My approach leveraged the idea that women are inherently practical. My sister-in-law illustrated this nicely when her boys were musing over the characteristics of their ideal car: One boy wanted a fast car, another a device-heavy RV for luxury while camping. Her husband wanted something with power and style. She cited "enough cup holders and nothing breaking down." They responded, "Oh, don't be such a mom!" But what is engineering, but making reliable, useful devices that fill a need of society?
Here are some tips I can offer about what you can do now  for your girl to set the stage for later success:
  • 1. Define what STEM is in current language. Talk about STEM in terms of their natural tendencies. Consider "Are you clever, creative, resourceful like Katniss in The Hunger Games or Violet in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events?" (The National Academy of Engineering's Changing the Conversation broke the traditional messaging strategy which waxed on about "being smart and working hard.")
  • 2. Present STEM in context of goals she cares about. Girls have broad interests, so show them how STEM meshes with or enhances their current interests or passions. (The Girl Scout study showed that girls are drawn to careers where they can help people, make a difference in the world, and allow them to make a contribution through their ability to think.)
    • Women role models can be one way to do this: Lillian Moller Gilbreth as a psychologist who later became an industrial engineer and designed the efficient kitchen, including devices such as the step-garbage can (see, you don't have to start in engineering to get into it later); Stephanie Kwolek as a chemist who was interested in becoming a fashion designer as a girl and later invented Kevlar (bulletproof) material; Grace Hopper a mathematics major who used her experience in playing basketball in school to develop the computer compiler while she served in the Navy during WWII (the compiler allows us to use English words to program computers, not numbers, as was done in the early days). 
  • 3. Teach that smartness is learned, not inherited. Resilience is needed for success in general and success in STEM is no different, especially considering the field is laden with gender stereotyped challenges. Talk about intelligence and skills in STEM as the result of study and hard work, not as a gene or inborn ability. Athletics are a great way to develop this way of thinking; it's no surprise to me that many of my STEM students are involved with a sport. (Micheal Jordan has some excellent quotations on how he became successful through hard work, not inborn talent.)
  • 4. Remind her that she was a girl from the beginning-- and always will be. In other words, your girl will not become less of a girl because she does something that other girls don't do (or that the boys may do). Today's society seems to accept that if a girl likes to do sports, she's still a girl, just one who likes to do sports. Perpetuate a similar message around STEM. This is why I made the "This is what an engineer looks like" t-shirts; I was tired of people thinking I wasn't an engineer because I also wore women's clothing. 
  • 5. Help her define her signature self. Being a woman in STEM doesn't mean giving up being "feminine". Ultra feminine may be detrimental (i.e., a total fashion model) but a touch of the feminine can be part of an individual woman's identity, and a signature style can help a girl feel special and unique. Consider these examples:
    • Annie Oakley designed her signature her athletic yet girlish fringed skirt.
    • Amelia Earhart always wore a signature silk aviator scarf, which was a practical garment in the historical open cockpit days, but gave her a flair of elegance in the 1920's
    • My engineering girlfriends have had their signature pocket watches and vests, high heeled pumps, stylish purses. I personally have worn short skirts and bolero jackets under my dark colored factory coveralls. With age, I have changed my signature piece to necklaces made of natural materials such as stones, metal, or carved wood.
You don't have to wait for them to apply to college to see if you are successful. The real clues about change in attitude and interest are seen in the way your girl does engineering (science, or STEM) in her everyday life. If your girl has no qualms about learning the STEM she needs to make her visions a reality, you've done a good job. For example, with my students, I have seen education, public health, and business majors learn and leverage their engineering skill, scientific knowledge, and mathematical quantification to follow their whimsy to create:
  • A hydraulic machine to illustrate the story of Prometheus' punishment; 
  • A foot-powered breast pump because of their interest in women's issues; 
  • A doorbell for a dog that wants to be let out;
  • A dollhouse with a working elevator and electric lights for their daughters to play with
Moreover, if your girls still do their thing while doing STEM, you know you have helped them see that STEM is a part of their girl identity, not a challenge to it. I saw this when:
  • My students bring their music to play during "work time" 
  • Teams go on field trips to the Chuck E. Cheese for ideas on what electro-mechanical arcade game to engineer
  • Students chatted about life, strife, and other connecting-conversational topics while they sawed, soldered, and experimented. Engineering and their everyday lives meshed at these magical times in class.
The 80's garage engineering entrepreneur converted the 60's thick glasses and necktie stereotypical engineers of the Sputnik era into a new image. Now, in 2000's, it's time for an image overhaul which needs to come the generation itself, including the female half of the population.

In May, I was fortunate enough to serve as a mentor for an engineering project on tpt's SciGirls show that will air sometime during the 2012-13 season. I'm hoping that my pregnant self (very womanly, but not very fashionably feminine) does not deter their middle school girl audience from feeling that STEM is within their grasp. The producers were thrilled at my physical state, citing that they wanted to show how women in STEM came from all walks and stages of life.

While the girls engineered their bicycle-powered ice cream maker (which even impressed the product design engineers I work with), I was able to see that they were defining a new image for an engineer: Passionate, bubbly, interested, curious, creative, persistent, collaborative -- and a bit musical. The SciGirls composed and sang songs all the time they worked on their project. With three of them in their school musical, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised!

I'm hopeful that society will be able to flex with this new generation of STEM professionals just at it did in the 80's. And with this new image, I hope that girls see that STEM is bigger than "a girl thing" that allows high-heels and helicopters or cosmetics and chemistry. I hope that they see that STEM can be each girl's "own thing." That ownership is what is needed to get in, get through, and persist in the most influential and exciting fields in today's modern world.

Help your girl by creating an environment that develops the needed skills, supports the required knowledge, and encourages the essential dispositions for success. Help her be able to say: "STEM -- it's my thing."

Related links:
Want to learn more about girls in STEM or STEM in general? Contact Yvonne at Engineer's Playground.