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.