Jan 18, 2014

#Girls in #STEM >> Guideline #4: STEM Success Will Look Different in Girls

Photo by sanja gjenero, via rgbstock.com
If you imagine the kid totally into STEM, you may think of a child surrounded by disassembled objects, or one creating mixtures with a chemistry set which occasionally explode, or one working problem sets with vigor. But how many of those images are stereotypical of boys?

October Sky, one of my favorite movies, showcases boys obsessed with rockets. In the book, this passion is even more explicit, with them learning how to draft, machine, and weld from technicians and begging the school to teach calculus so they can figure out how high their rockets go using time measurements. All were motivated through their love of rockets to move into post-secondary education, and Henry Hickam, the author, went on to become an engineer at NASA.

Girls interested in STEM also have a great time with others. STEM usually needs to be associated with a positive social interaction. This was a key element found in the study, More than ability: Gender and personal relationships influence science and technology involvement. While boys will power through the tough times (read: challenging courses, poor teaching, impossible deadlines) once given a goal that they want, girls usually need to have positive social experiences to stick it through. Sports, theater, and dance are all challenging activities that girls succeed in, but only when the thrill of doing it with others is the capstone. From this, it's obvious why STEM, taught in isolated, competitive, and/or boot-camp-like environments succeeds in discouraging females.

What does the movie with girls into STEM look like? From the women I know in STEM, it may have a girl hanging out with her father, working on the car, making shelves, or looking at stars (like Ellie in Contact). It may be a girl with her mother, cooking and substituting ingredients for those they don't have; figuring out the most efficient system for sending out holiday cards; or sewing and selecting the right material, modifying patterns, using tools such as needles, shears, and machines to stitch and alter like Laura does in These Happy Golden Years. It may be a group banding together to use their STEM expertise make a great event happen like a theater set production team, a math-competition team, or a detective team (like Charlie's Angels -- the spirit spoke to me as a young girl though now as an adult, the settings may have been questionable; the remake may give a clearer sense of girl power).

So don't box your girl into the categories of quiet nerds or boisterous brogrammers; today's STEM girls are new kids in town, and they will be like nothing you have seen before.

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