February 28, 2017

My Love/Hate Relationship with STEM Education for Girls

by

STEM Girls

 

As a girl who grew up loving science and math, but eventually moved away from it, I have a love/hate relationship with the recent STEM and coding movements. I know math and science are important, especially for girls. Then again, the only female math or science teacher I had was my 10th grade Biology teacher, Mrs. Head. Even then, it wasn’t like it was so special because she was my aunt’s sister so I already knew her.

I always look back and say that I probably had one of the best STEM experiences in high school because almost all my classes were filled with other girls. If my memory serves me correctly, I’d say that the top 25 of my class (of which I was one!), half were girls. This is out of over 400 kids. Back then – 30 years ago, Class of ’87!! – it was unheard of for so many girls to be at the top of the class.

I’d say, for the most part, my teachers didn’t have issues with ‘the girls’. There was one (male) science teacher who would often put us in boy vs. girl teams, but I never saw it as a gender issue. For the most part the girls were equal to the boys, and we usually won, so I saw it as a way to tap down the testosterone surge of awkward high school boys. Maybe I was naive. And, if so, I’ll just keep it that way. Sure, that teacher had favorites – all of them boys. While  he made it very clear to me that he was never going to accept that I was as smart as the smartest boys, he had to pretend when every time he asked me to prove my worth I did. As a matter of fact, he didn’t want me to go to a state science competition because I was the only girl selected and we’d need a female chaperone. I was required to ask the female teachers if one would like to be my chaperone. Luckily I wasn’t asked to pay more to have my own hotel room, but he make it known that ‘his boys’ had to share a room while I got my own. At the end of the day, I won! None of ‘his boys’ won their divisions. I did. Not only did I win my division, my project and presentation were selected as one of the top three overall. Boom! Oh, and he had to present my award at the school assembly even though he didn’t want to.

I’ve looked back on that one incident and how, despite my hundreds of hours of work between 11pm and 3am having my mom drive me to the university two days a week for several months so I could work with a professor and his team of Ph.D. and Masters students, for me it was never trying to prove I was good enough. At that time, I didn’t see that he didn’t want any girls on his science teams and did everything he could to keep us off. Part of that was teen cockiness. But part of it was because my mom always told me that I if I did the work she’s make sure I had the same opportunities.

Then I went away to college. And the teen cockiness was knocked down quickly. I selected my program – constructional engineering – because it’s something I was really interested in learning and doing. I was one of about 6 girls in the program, and that included the graduate students and office staff. That should give you an idea of where I found myself. The professors were openly sexist. The teaching assistants had no time for me. In my advance physics class I was one of a few girls. I was the only girl in my physics lab. I was one of 3 girls in my Advanced Differential Calculus class, but the only freshman. I looked around, day after day, and saw few women. The women I saw were so busy keeping their place at the table there was no time left to make sure I even had a place in the room.

Now, as a mom to a girl who excels in math and science in a world where STEM education for girls has become a focus of education I’m not the advocate I once thought I would be. Yes, BabyGirl has been involved in robotics and science camps, often being the only girl. Yes, BabyGirl spent a summer in the NASAGirls program and has attended girl-only summer STEM camp at the local universities.

The push for STEM-everything, which is really coding-focused for the elementary and middle school ages, doesn’t seem genuine when it comes to girls, though. Sure, there are amazing organizations like Girls Who Code, but their local programs are connected to a school and if you don’t happen to go to that school you’re on your own. And what if you don’t want to code?

What if you don’t want to code? Can you tell me what’s out there for girls who don’t want to code but love science and technology and engineering and math? I can tell you. Not much. With all the great programs that use STEM as their basis, there is such a predominance of coding that kids are learning that STEM is coding. Girls are being taught that STEM equals coding.

So when they don’t like coding, they don’t like STEM. If they’re not good at coding they start to think they’re not good at STEM. They’re not good at science or math. And that’s where I have a problem.

I was fortunate. Up until about 10 years ago, education was about the various types of science – biology, botany, zoology, chemistry, physics, and so many others – and math. It wasn’t about coding. I hated coding. It’s one of the reason I left my engineering program in college. It’s not that I wasn’t good at it, it’s that I hated staring at a screen with a bunch of nonsense to try and make some stupid design or have a series of number print out on a card. Science and math weren’t fun any more.

And that’s where I am today as a mom, trying to convince my daughter that math and science are fun. That they are used in real life. That there’s more to STEM than coding.

I believe that coding has its place in STEM. But it would be great if schools and the STEM movement would move beyond that focus and create programs that actually try to keep girls interested in science and math beyond elementary school. I say this because I know that there are awesome science and math programs and careers out there for girls, but they have to stay interested long enough to be able to see them as viable college and career options.

What are your thoughts about STEM education for girls? Has your experience been different?

Sara

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