My Love/Hate Relationship with STEM Education for Girls

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

How the Movie ‘Hidden Figures’ Sheds Light on Women in STEM to Give Young Girls More Role Models

Hidden Figures One Sheet

Based on the book of the same name, the movie Hidden Figures has grown from a small-budget, limited-release film to one that has expanded release and is receiving critical acclaim. The book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, written by Margot Lee Shetterly, brings to light several of the key African-American women who worked as ‘calculators’, and then mathematicians, at what is now NASA. Long before computers, people did the work of calculators. During their time, beginning in the 1940s, these young African-American women not only dealt with the sexism of the day but also were constantly reminded that ‘they’ were different. Regardless of the caliber of their work, it was several decades of being ‘colored’ and treated as third-class citizens that each of them had to contend with to do jobs where they could use their talents and pursue work that allowed them not only to contribute the space-race but also contribute to their self-satisfaction.

Although it was first released in select cities, I knew I wanted to see the movie and take BabyGirl to see it too. For decades young black girls never knew that there was a foundation in math and science careers set for them by the women portrayed in the movie and many others like them. As a bi-racial child, it is important to me that BabyGirl learn about her African-American history. Equally important is to teach her that while she’s grown up being told girls can do anything they set their mind to, sexism still may play a role. It’s easier to find stories of women who’ve overcome sexism in the workplace to become successful. But to have a story where even if they could overcome the sexism, the color of their skin was a constant reminder that they were ‘less than’ when it came to the type of work being done for the space program.

The theater was mostly empty, with BabyGirl significantly bringing down the average age. The movie moves along quickly and keeps you engaged. If you’ve never experienced racism first hand, there are a few uncomfortable situations that are even still pertinent today. The sexism can be brushed aside as something ‘of the time’. I think most of us are accustomed to women’s roles in the 50s and 60s. The music, the costumes, and the historical accuracy are so well done that you’re not distracted by something that doesn’t fit. The writers deserve a lot of credit for these because they could have easily left us trying to reconcile things on our own. Instead, they give us a truth that is closer to their reality and not one that we need to construct.

Now open nationwide, it’s very easy to encourage everyone to go see Hidden Figures. The reasons, though, are multi-faceted. It’s a story to encourage girls in STEM education. It’s a story that shows young black girls that despite thinking the path was only recently created this is a trail that was blazed a generation ago and has much deeper roots. It’s a story to remind us that thinking big and doing what seems impossible is a foundation of this country – for all people.

I think everyone who sees it can find their connection. As a parent, I feel connected to Katherine Johnson’s parents who were strong advocates for their gifted daughter. As a girl who loved math but felt pushed out by ‘the boys’, I know how difficult it must have been for these women to do this back in their time. As an American I see that we have come a long way, but still have room to improve.

Any time we have the opportunity to tell the stories of people whose stories were ignored, we need to do it. To think that major advances or events happened with only certain people perpetuates the misinformation that we’ve become conditioned to accept as fact. Today we have a platform to tell these stories. But we also have the responsibility to ensure that similar stories of today are told in real-time.

We can’t continue to tell stories like this as history. Girls of all color deserve to see themselves in women who are, every day, ensuring that this trail not only becomes smoother but also goes farther. In 2018, we will have the first African-American crew member on the International Space Station. Jeanette Epps, Ph.D., may not have set out to be the first but by telling her story in real-time we’re not left wondering if there is a place for girls in math and science.

History helps shape the future. Without stories like these kids, girls especially, grow up thinking they don’t belong. However, we can’t rely on history. Especially not when today we have amazing women of all color doing exceptional work in math and science, breaking down barriers that are remnants of an era we need to put behind us.

This isn’t just a story about black women who pushed “the system”. It’s a story about Jim Crow laws, feminism, self-respect, perseverance, love, and history. It’s all of these that are woven together to create a screenplay and bring to life the story of just three of the women who did the impossible. And helped their country do the impossible at the same time.

We need these movies. They give us hope and perspective, two things we need our children to have so they can go out on their journeys to do great things. And at the same time they show us that sometimes by just doing your job the way you think it should be done, you can make history.

Sara

Could Big Hero 6 Create A STEMGirl Revolution?

Big Hero 6 Girls

Admittedly, I’m not up on all things Marvel Comics. Other than watching a few of the cartoons growing up, Guardians of the Galaxy was the first mainstream Marvel movie I went to see. Even the, when I went to the Guardians of the Galaxy screening I took my friend with me because she was more familiar with the franchise and would be able to explain things I didn’t get.

When the Big Hero 6 movie marketing started it was all focused on the lead character, Hiro, and the robot Baymax. And while it’s great to finally see a positive male Asian lead character, that was pretty much a given with the Big Hero 6 story. The same with Baymax. Afterall, this is a Disney movie. Which is why I didn’t go to the screening. I really wasn’t in the mood to see a superhero movie about men (even if they are really boys) saving the world from imminent destruction. Even if it had a soft, lovable, squishy robot turned killing machine, turned lovable robot.

Then the movie came out and I read a great article by Bob Yamtich about Big Hero 6 and giftedness. And I figured it was worth researching more. Everything focused on Hiro and his band of superheroes. But there are girls in the movie. Girl superheroes. Smart girl superheroes. Science-minded, brilliant girls! Characters that really can be role models for young STEMGirls like BabyGirl.

From my research, both Honey Lemon and GoGo Tomago are very different in the comic version. The writers didn’t have to make them equal in the movie. But they did. I’d like to believe it was a conscious effort to create both women as equals with respect to their male counterparts.

This might be the first kid-focused movie to have strong women scientist characters BabyGirl can relate to. Girls across the country have few, if any, STEM role models in movies. But Big Hero 6 changed that. Honey Lemon was a very talkative college co-ed with a love for chemistry. But she is also feminine and smart, described in the press materials as an “effusive brainiac”. GoGo Tomago is described as “tough, athletic and loyal to the bone, but not much of a conversationalist.

So what was it that brought these two characters to the big screen? I’ve not read anything about their character development or why the writers and developers chose to change-up these characters from their original. I realize much of their original back story wouldn’t work given that the Big Hero 6 movie is set in the fictional town of San Fransokyo at the local University. Since the characters themselves are kids, much of the original story had to be re-written.

Long before Frozen hit the big screen, this movie was moving forward in development so we can’t even say that Big Hero 6 needed something for girls to like coming off the blockbuster hit. Somewhere, someone realized that maybe the girls in the movie could be equally as capable, smart, and awesome as their male counterparts. And for that I’m thankful.

Whether there was anything consciously done to create these STEMGirls I really don’t know. What I do know is that if they keep this up more young girls will see that staying with science, technology, engineering, and math are cool. That they, too, can create things and be superheroes.

For now, though, I’ll let everyone else focus on Hiro and Baymax while I talk about Honey and GoGo. Because, just as people talk about how Hiro and Baymax really come to life in this movie, I’ll be talking about how these two female scientists not only came to life but also helped stoke the flame that burns inside a new generation of girls who believe being smart is cool and amazing.

Have you seen Big Hero 6? If not, do you think you’re going to see it now?

Sara

Project-Based Learning #STEMChat 11/13 9pm ET

STEM Chat

IAT Logo

Disclosure: I am a compensated panelist for #STEMChat. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Mark your calendar to join the November #STEMChat on Twitter this Thursday (11/13/14) at 9pm ET on Twitter. This hour-long chat will focus on project based learning and how project based learning gives kids a more broad-based education when compared to traditional rote memorization. Sponsored by IT’S ABOUT TIME® (IAT), we will have the opportunity to learn how It’s About Time’s project-based learning curricula and edtech is part of a comprehensive education program from kids of all ages.

The Twitter chat will be hosted by The Maker Mom, Kim Moldofsky, together with IAT. I will join the other panelists to talk about how project based learning can enhance gifted and homeschool education programs. As a STEM advocate, my goal is to encourage kinds of all ability to have an interest in STEM projects.

As she prepares for middle school, I’ve noticed that much of BabyGirl’s school time is spent in project-based learning opportunities. Gone are the days of reading a book and regurgitating what you remember onto an exam paper. Now, BabyGirl’s teacher is much more focused on interdisciplinary learning and having the kids become more engaged through project based learning. I’ve seen first hand the benefits, both in the quality of work and in the level of interest.

Meet the #STEMchat Panelists

  • @Venspired, Krissy Venosdale is passionate educator, STEAM advocate, Space Camp alum and maker of inspirational classroom posters. Learn more about her atVenspired.com.
  • @JanelleWilson, Janelle Wilson, is passionate about STEM, space, learning, and making all of which she shares with her chemistry and engineering students at Lanier High School in Sugar Hill, GA in a PBL-focused STEM-certified program. Read more about her at Stretching Forward.
  • @BetaMiller, Andrew Miller, is an educational consultant with ASCD and the Buck Institute for Education as well as a regular blogger for Edutopia.
  • @LaurieEDU, Laurie Kreindler, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of IT’S ABOUT TIME®. You can read her writings at Education Insider™.
  • @ItsAboutTimeEDU, IT’S ABOUT TIME®, is the leading provider of SF-backed, project-based STEM curricula and edtech for K-12 and college students across the country.
  • Moderator and host, @KimMoldofsky, also known as The Maker Mom and founder of #STEMchat. You can also follow her at @STEMchat, which is her default account if she lands in Twitter “jail.”

Whether you homeschool, public school, private school, or charter school, please join us on Twitter, Thursday, November 14, 2014 at 9pm ET, for what is sure to be an interesting and informative #STEMChat about project based learning. We’d love to hear about your experiences as well as answer questions. Tweet you there!

Sara

Encouraging Girls In STEM: An Interview with Dr. Lana Yarosh

Lana_Yarosh_PhD

I remember growing up and wondering what I wanted to do when I grew up. I was 7 when I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. That decision was based on several conversation I had with a family friend. It wasn’t until I was in my teens when I finally met a woman lawyer. Prior to that, I never thought about whether “girls” could be lawyers.

Then there was the emersion in science in high school. I was fortunate there were a number of girls in my classes. Girls who, like me, could hold their own. It wasn’t that we weren’t given the “she’s a girl” look. Rather, we were all able to establish ourselves as capable. I was the only girl on the High-Q (think quiz bowl) team. I know I was chosen because I excelled on the tests and could answer the questions, but in the city I was just one of a hand full of girls out of more than a dozen teams, and many believed I was just window dressing.

So when BabyGirl asks me about science and math and engineering, I work very hard to find women who are working in STEM careers. And while we don’t allow but a few hours of TV time a week, Design Squad has been a staple in our house for years (despite only having one season available on AppleTV). Seeing older girls competing with boys in a STEM-intensive challenge is motivating and encouraging for BabyGirl.

When I was offered the opportunity to speak to Dr. Svetlana “Lana” Yarosh at AT&T Labs Research, I couldn’t turn it down. A young woman whose parents are both scientists, Dr. Yarosh didn’t gravitate to STEM naturally. Despite being a trailblazer, with a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry, Dr. Yarosh’s mother didn’t direct her daughter onto her path. Instead, Dr. Yarosh said her mother encouraged her to find her own passion and excel at what she loved. That’s probably the best advice we can give our daughters, while still helping to create opportunities for them.

Dr. Yarosh was generous with her time, as well as being candid about her experiences as one of only a few girls in her STEM-focused classes.

Me: Why do you think there are still so few girls pursuing STEM education?

Dr. Yarosh: Even today, one of the challenges is actually keeping girls engaged. Often, teachers and instructors will overlook the contributions girls are able to make, and male students may be intimidating with their ‘I have been doing this for years’ talk.

Me: When I think back to being an engineering student, I just shake my head in agreement. There weren’t many girls and we were often ignored. Why do you think girls, even now, shy away from STEM education as they move up in grade?

Dr. Yarosh: Without the opportunity to learn about the various programs, girls may believe certain classes, such as those in Computer Science, are boring or require you to sit behind a computer focused on a screen. Girls aren’t given first-hand experience so they have to rely on what they read or see on TV.

Me: How do we change this perception with girls?

Dr. Yarosh: Mentors are a great way for girls to ask questions about the jobs women are doing. By participating in mentorship programs, women in STEM careers are reaching out to girls in elementary, junior high, and high school. It’s also important for girls to find women who are doing things they’re interested in doing and ask them how they did it, what path they took.

Me: What is one piece of advice you’d give an elementary school girl who is interested in STEM?

Dr. Yarosh: “Be Fearless!” Don’t let fear dissuade you from learning. Don’t let other people who brag that they’re really good at something stop you from trying.

Me: Teachers are often a big influence on girls when it comes to pursuing interests in STEM. What advice would you give teachers to help them keep girls engaged and interested?

Dr. Yarosh: Encourage play, especially at the lower grades. Encourage girls to try and not be afraid of breaking things. Let them know that if they do break it, it’s OK, it’s part of learning.

Me: Now that you’ve got your Ph.D. and are working alongside other women to create real-world products and services, what are a few things you’d change if you could go back in time?

Dr. Yarosh: I would stress out less. I was too worried about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’ve realized now that we never really grow up. I’d also play more and not be worried that I was doing something wrong because I hadn’t been working with something since I was a kid. If you keep trying things you’ll get a sense of where you belong.

Dr. Yarosh created a path that worked for her. It was through mentors and teachers who encouraged her to keep at it that she has been able to merge her love of psychology and technology. And one thing I found especially significant was that she found ways to measure her success. Rather than rely on ways others were measuring success, she created ways to boost her confidence and keep her motivated to continue rather than get discouraged and allow other’s perceptions of success determine her path.

I appreciate Dr. Yarosh taking time to share her thoughts about Girls in STEM with me. I can relate to a lot of what she talked about, having been discouraged from pursing an engineering degree because I was girl in a male-dominated program. Twenty years later, things are improving for our young girls. And it’s women like Dr. Yarosh who defy the odds and pursue their passion who are the role models parents like myself seek out for their daughters.

While there are more women in STEM careers now, I’m often searching to find examples for BabyGirl. I have found that there are many, like Dr. Yarosh, who are not only working in their chosen field but are searching for opportunities to bring their passion to a new generation of young women. As Dr. Yarosh has shown, the path to your passion doesn’t have to be one that everyone else takes.

About Dr. Yarosh:

Svetlana “Lana” Yarosh is an HCI researcher at AT&T Labs Research in New Jersey. She was born in Moscow, Russia and immigrated to America with her family in 1995. She received two Bachelors of Science from University of Maryland (in Computer Science and Psychology) and a Doctor of Philosophy from the Human-Centered Computing program at Georgia Institute of Technology. Her research falls primarily in the area of Human-Computer Interaction, with a focus on Ubiquitous and Social Computing and a special interest in Child-Computer Interaction. Lana has a passion for empirically investigating real-world needs that may be addressed through computing applications, designing and developing technological interventions, and evaluating them using a balance of qualitative and quantitative methods. Most recently, she has created the ShareTable — a media space system supporting synchronous remote communication between children and parents in divorced families. Her work has been featured on CNN, has won multiple innovation competitions, and has been recognized with a Fran Allen Ph.D. Fellowship Award. Lana is honored to have been the recipient of numerous grants and scholarships including the AT&T Labs Research Graduate Fellowship, the IBM Graduate Fellowship, and the Nokia University Funding Award.

Sara