Girls + STEM = something special

When I was in the 5th grade, I had a teacher who thought it would be cool if the girls in his class got excited about science.  I remember vividly the discussion we had one day about sugar in water.  “Will the sugar dissolve faster in the hot water or the cold water?”  My hand shot up, and I said COLD WATER!.  I was wrong, the boys laughed, and Mr. Morgan explained why my answer was wrong.  He wasn’t condescending about it, he just wanted to make sure I understood why the hot water would do the job faster.  I wanted to confirm it, so I ran home, burned through about 2 pounds of sugar and 4 quarts of hot and cold water… and I was hooked.  I went on to get a degree in industrial supervision, with a minor in chemistry.  I’ve worked along side men (usually being the only woman in the joint) as a safety engineering, and I’m now learning how to be a technologist.  I scare even me.

I’m in the last week of a Research Methods class, where I learned about action research and how to take a question about an issue in the classroom, do the research, analyse the data and come up with an intervention.  I chose to consider girls, science, and surviving middle school.  My question was, how can girls be exposed to STEM career options in a safe learning environment?

I’ve been teaching middle and high school science for 10 years now.  I’ve noticed something, girls are lukewarm about science and math while in middle school.  Oh yeah, there are a few, who are like I was, “weird”, and in love with anything that goes “boom”.  but a good many, just don’t seem to get into the joy of learning about the world around them.  It was disappointing, except, a good many of them turn it around before the graduate.  I’ve had former students take AP science classes and go on to science majors in college… girls who proudly announced how much they hated science in middle school.

The research talks about this phenomenon: there are factors that cause girls to dismiss courses and careers in science and math only to go on later to study the topics.  The way they choose to learn the subjects are very different from boys, the social and cultural pressures are very different, the assumption that they are “good” at science and math lurks quietly in the background of their lives.  Even after many decide to explore science careers, they do so well after they’ve started college, unlike boys who know they want science and math careers the day they hang their posters on their dorm room walls.

There aren’t many women engineers (as compared to men), technologists, scientists and mathematicians out there.  Yes, women abound in the health care professions, but where are the scientists?  How do we nurture an interest in STEM in girls?  There are many programs out there, based on the literature, most are successful in exposing girls to women in STEM careers, giving them a safe place to learn how to become scientists.  We’re seeing that girls collaborate as scientists more than boys; this in a discipline that tends to be solitary.  What does that say about how research will change as more women take on these careers?

How can I help make a change for girls?  I did my little research project, collected some data, reviews some literature, talked to some teachers.  Perhaps a summer program that includes role models, hands on activities, field trips and discussions on what we can be if we work hard at it.  Girls are something special.  They’re needed in STEM careers.

How do you support student learning in your classroom/school building?  What do you expose your students to so they can begin thinking about their futures?