Oct 31, 2013

The Curious Case of #Girls and #STEM: Guidelines to keep your girl in STEM

Photo by Heriberto, via rgbstock.com
From my Facebook feed:
My husband and I have been talking about how our daughter is showing a head for math and yet, I have NO IDEA about how to sustain her interest and encourage it. I see so clearly the road ahead and all its enticements away from the STEM path, and I don't know how to keep her on it.
She is very much a girly girl but also loves to play chess, Rush Hour-type games, and I just want to make sure that we can support her interests in this kind of thinking before the tide of growing up sweeps her to other things. Her school is progressive and awesome, and I feel like she will be supported there. Curious to watch her trajectory considering her interest now and how that pans out in a decade or so. 
I love this question. I get really pumped, providing a fire hydrant of information. So, I'll try to keep this brief and useful!*

I've been watching girls in STEM, particularly girls in engineering, for quite some time**. Through the years, I have seen a lot on the science of girls and STEM: from cognitive studies on how people learn engineering to questions about whether biology made a difference (Thank you, Larry Summers, for opening that can of worms...). All of these are informative on the topic of girls in STEM, but as an engineer, I find myself wanting to find solutions... things to do instead of just studying the issue.

In short, I find that both girls and boys start with the same "raw ingredients" required by science, engineering, and mathematics professionals -- inclinations to investigate the world, find patterns, and use those to get what they want (solve problems) (see talk on STEM in early childhood). They differ only by the experiences (toys, challenges, guided learning) and environmental factors (supportive or hostile environment, prejudices, finances, and opportunities); they are, in a sense, engineered to go into STEM, rather than born that way.

Sorry to say, I haven't found a silver bullet for introducing and keeping girls in STEM: no one curriculum, no one type of school, no one toy. There are some half-hearted efforts (e.g. "pink-ifying" erector sets) and some really thought out ones (e.g. combining stories and tinkering as GoldieBlox does). While there isn't one solution, I have found that girls who become women in STEM have traveled a number of different and interesting paths.

While I can't endorse one product that will fit all girls, I can suggest guidelines that activate positive conditions:
  1. ENVIRONMENT MATTERS: Picking the right school for your girl does matter. Kudos to parents who take the time to find a good fit. Some find that girl-inclusive is good enough, an environment where teachers don't fall into the subconscious habits outlined in the classic study, Shortchanging Our Girls. Others find that girl-only may be the best for their girl, where girls do not fall into the habits of waiting to be invited or defer to the vocally eager boys.
  2. WHAT IS TAUGHT MATTERS: For better or for worse, a lot of girls come into school with more head and heart rather than hand experiences. In the "old days" girls may have actually had more hand skills that gave them a base for STEM knowledge, even though they were stereotypical: cooking, cleaning, sewing, crafting. But these hand activities still developed the needed skills for STEM. In other words, your girl doing "girly" activities isn't necessarily a detriment (see "Women Art" and Engineering). Today, with a largely virtual and microwave world, these basic experiences in chemistry, manufacturing, and material technologies are lost. If you, your school, or the out-of-school activities she does can help her develop other skills like programming, tools, electronics, and construction, all the better. Good toys, teachers, and parents provide opportunities to learn the basic traits needed for STEM (I call them "the 8 traits" in Engineering for the Uninitiated).
  3. HANDLING FAILURE MATTERS: Too many times girls find their sense of confidence from getting answers right the first time; to fail is disastrous for their belief in future success. But failure is inevitable when one approaches anything new or challenging, so while it's good for you to be there to pick her up when she stumbles and give her encouragement, don't overprotect her. I have chided friends who anticipate future difficulties by telling their girls who bring home A's in math, "You don't have to get an A every time." STEM, like other professions, has its challenges, and the ability to learn from failure is an important skill no matter what she will do. Action is important, too. Girls try to avoid failure by planning too long. But if the challenge is in a new area, the faster action needs to happen to learn more. I like to say "fail early, fail often so you can learn faster" (see Failure, healthier than you thought).
  4. SUCCESS WILL LOOK DIFFERENT: Too many times, people assume that if a girl is "hooked" she will be obsessed (as young boys often are) with STEM, doing kits, blowing up things... living and breathing that one passion. Statistically, this won't be the case and you may miss the positive impact you may have made (see One Small Step). Instead, look for the activities she tries to engage you or friends in, games she likes to play, projects she finds interesting. Realize this is an indication of her growing passion.
  5. STEM AND... MUST BE ADDRESSED: This is related to Guideline 4. Don't create an ultimatum where your girl must choose between STEM or some other interest such as sports, dance, art, music, or friends (see It's My Thing: A New Approach to Girls and STEM).Girls statistically are interest gatherers (not interest-hunters), sampling and trying things out early until they weed out a few and develop them. Work with her to find ways that she can pursue her multiple interests -- even into college. I can't tell you how many women I know take courses in a broad range of areas for fun. It is this diversity of interest that will let them see how each complements the other; it also may be where their unique contributions to STEM may come.
This is just a brief outline of the guidelines. I will expand more on these in future posts.

Blog post series:

*Other resources can be found at Engineer's Playground > Resources > Educational Issues and > Fun Stuff
**Following girls in STEM started early when I read biographies of women scientists. Lifestyle considerations became more concrete when when my mother put "The Leaky Pipeline" report in my hands as I graduated from high school in the late 80's. My own experiences as a woman engineering led me to compiling what may be the first "reflection" book by women in engineering (She's an Engineer? Princeton Alumnae Reflect), all of which informed the decade of my time at St. Catherine University advising engineering and computer students and being an all-purpose contact for NSF STEM scholars.

Want to learn more about girls in STEM or STEM in general? Check out the professional development and consulting packages at Engineer's Playground or contact Yvonne to discuss your unique situation.

Oct 1, 2013

Giving STEAM schools the full power of STEM

In my recent #EDTalk*, I was asked about STEAM. It's not the first time that I have been asked about how the Arts and STEM are related.

I deplore the elimination of the arts in favor for STEM, with the idea that the later will develop a more employable student. The two are important partners in reaching all kids and improving the creativity of students to apply STEM for our future technological world (see How engineering can save the arts). However, I do have some cautions.

Sadly, I have heard cases where art experts say they do STEM by incorporating simplified, cursory references to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Examples include counting as part of a dance lesson (math), representing the seasons in a series of drawings or paintings (science), using the computer (technology), or using a kit where each student's product looks the same as each other (engineering).

From the STEM side. I have seen the activities to be silos: The STEM is done first, and the performance of those concepts are a more "artistic" assignment: a drawing, a play, a poem, or a song.

I feel these approaches are more about the limited experience and knowledge of the current instructors. I make no claims on being an expert in art, which is what makes me such a good collaborator in these "consulting" gigs. I am eager to add more art understanding to my portfolio because it shows me more connections to STEM.

When I have taught art instructors -- whether performance or studio arts -- the basics of STEM, they realize the power that STEM understanding has to offer them to achieve their creative vision. This is what a real STEAM program needs to offer: deep instruction in both STEM and the Arts. It's not easy to do, but the results can be amazing.

Consider my touchstones when I think of a STEAM education:

Photo by Thomas Faivre-Duboz
via wikipedia.com
  • Les Paul. Inventor of electric guitar. Also played with electronics in his youth, making a crystal radio at the age of 9. I had a much greater appreciation for his self-made STEAM education after seeing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit.
  • Ken Knowlton. Early photomosaic artist. Computer professional used his technical expertise to create mosaics from individual photos: A portrait of President Obama made of separate photos of Obama.

George Rickey. Kinetic sculptor. Former Army engineer turned artist, creating sculptures that move. Pieces are either powered mechanisms or balanced structures that respond to the environment.
Photo via wikipedia.com
  • Start small. Connections between STEM and the Arts can start as early as elementary school, just on a smaller scale. For example, the kinetic sculpture starts with an understanding of center of gravity, which is also addressed in science simple machine (levers) lessons. Mobiles are a small scale concept of the lever ideas and are a classic project in art classes.
  • Parallel inquiry, engineering, and design processes. All are the ways that science, engineering, and art "step into the abyss" -- the unknown, the not-yet-made. Don't try to make them the same. Appreciate their differences to address the main focus of each discipline as well as their similarities. Otherwise, you risk diluting one for the others.
  • Think about technology as tools. Too many times, folks think of technology as computers. Computers are one of my tools of the trade, but it irks me when such a limited definition of "technology" is used. Computers were invented in the 1950s, maybe the 1940s if you include ENIAC. But all would agree that there have been technological advanced well before then. One way to start thinking broadly about technology is to think of it as tools for creation. For example, humans made holes first with their hands, then with a stick, then a shovel, then with power tools. Today, there are computer-controlled tools. Each represents a new technological change, and each have their own benefits.
  • See science and mathematics as methods of pattern finding and information packing. Mathematics is the tool used to find the patterns to predict what will give us our desired vision: Les Paul used knowledge of sound in materials to experiment with the solid guitar in pursuit of the sound he wanted.  Physics concepts about light and binary numbers allowed us to represent colored images with bitmaps. More mathematical processing permitted more efficient data packing so stretching and shrinking was possible with less memory.
So let's STEAM ahead together -- art and STEM educators -- to give STEAM the full power STEM has to offer.

*The #EDTalk was a great event put on September 24, 2013 at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall by AchieveMpls. Citizens League, Young Education Professionals-Twin Cities, DRIVE Emerging Leaders, and tpt.

Want to learn more about STEM+ (beyond STEM schools) or STEM in general? Contact Yvonne at Engineer's Playground.