Here’s why STEM needs girls

By the time we arrive in Ottawa, visiting the nation’s capital one weekend in May, the kids’ patience is wearing thin. A nearly five-hour trek from Toronto (yes, we’re forced to pull over at more than one rest stop along the highway), our girls, Addyson, 9, and Peyton, 7, want nothing but Timbits and a swim at the hotel pool. But splashing around isn’t on my agenda—just yet, anyway. On our short visit, we’ll explore Ingenium Canada’s trio of fun and educational museums: the Canada Science and Technology Museum, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum and the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum.

Admittedly, my motivation here is twofold. The kids love a good road trip, they think hotels are cool and they’re looking forward to seeing family, including three canine cousins. But I’ve got something else up my sneaky sleeve—Addyson and Peyton are very much into math and science in school. They don’t get this from me; my short-lived idea of becoming a marine biologist was squashed in high school when I barely got by in grade 11 math and biology. (Goodbye dreams of saving the sea turtles.) I’m acutely aware of my downfall in STEM subjects, but I’m just as aware of my girls’ impressive skills and want to foster their interests as much as I can.

Three minutes into our tour of ZOOM, the Children’s Innovation Zone at the Science and Technology Museum, my kids are immersed in all-things STEM—they turn into little scientists, putting hypotheses to the test in this self-directed lab where there’s no right or wrong way to investigate. It’s something Catherine Emond, an education and interpretation officer at Ingenium, says she’s seen thousands of times. She tells us that even though the exhibit is for kids eight and younger, older siblings often come in and get just as wrapped up in the experiments as the little ones. When the girls beeline to a cool-looking puzzle-building centre, Emond talks about the element of surprise and experimentation. “These activities offer open-ended exploration and allow visitors to not only choose how they’ll use the equipment, but also how they’ll test and then alter their theories free of gender stereotypes or biases. This is STEM in action,” she says.

It’s gender stereotypes that are propelling boys into STEM and keeping girls on the sidelines, according to a UNESCO report released in 2017. Girls are at a disadvantage because of the “socialization and learning processes within which girls are raised and which shape their identity, beliefs, behaviours and choices,” it says. With stats like this in mind, federal initiatives have been mandated to increase girls’ (and women’s, for that matter) participation in STEM, including a 2015 report on the Status of Women; a 2017 program called CanCode (which provides coding training for kids from kindergarten to high school, with a special emphasis on getting girls involved); and a national 2017 campaign called Choose Science, designed to encourage girls to continue STEM subjects in their education and careers.

Big-picture progress is being made but there are certainly ways educators and parents can jump on the STEM bandwagon at school and at home. We asked the experts for advice on how to get—and keep—girls engaged in these once “boys only” subjects.

Fight Gender Roles At Home And At School

“I often hear young girls say they were told by boys that the Skylanders video games, for example, are for one gender only,” Emond says. “I ask what they think and most often they realize they don’t have to agree and can pursue their own paths. It’s about empowering them by letting them see on their own how much they can contribute and not be defined by gender roles.” It’s important to break down these stereotypes and make sure girls—the younger, the better—know there’s room for them in the still male-dominated industries. Easier said than done, right? The experts all agree it’s a work in progress; they also agree that parents can play a big role at home. Actua, a national organization that helps girls discover careers in STEM, offers two super-easy examples that would excite boys but will also spark interest in girls: Using chemicals and a black light, show kids how washing their hands prevents germs from spreading; or have older girls work on a budget for, say, a water-filtration project to provide clean water for communities to get them to apply their skills in math.

Introduce Girls To Female Role Models In STEM

Addyson’s blue eyes widened at the Aviation and Space Museum when we stopped to look at Canada’s distinguished astronauts—their photos, details of their missions and even the insignia cut from their spacesuits hang proudly in the hall. The kids are delighted to see Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, an engineer and astronaut who now serves as Governor General of Canada, and Dr. Roberta Bondar, a neurologist and the first Canadian woman in space. “Try to share stories of successful women in STEM—strong female role models can go a long way,” says Sarah King, a scientist and science advisor at the Agriculture and Food Museum. “The one thing I hear over and over is that girls like to see women ‘in the field.’ If they can see relatable examples of women doing STEM jobs, it empowers them to follow their dreams,” she says, mentioning the museum as an example, where many women work on the farm. “Young girls are very impressed seeing women driving a tractor or operating large pieces of farm machinery. These are wonderful examples of women pursuing careers in agriculture.”

Lillian Papel is a Toronto science teacher who promotes STEM inclusion in the classroom. She’s also the teacher of a grade 8 class that was named as a 2017 winner of the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Challenge, which looks at careers in STEM and demonstrates how it can be used to improve their school and community. (Her students designed an irrigation system that harnessed rain and snow to support and water their rooftop garden.) She suggests parents remind kids that there are plenty STEM role models in their own communities—from the neighbourhood veterinarian and dentist, to the financial planner at the bank and the computer programmer next door. (And, of course, their science and math teachers.)

Don’t forget to model enthusiasm for STEM when you’re with your kids— it’s bound to funnel down to them. “A colleague was recently helping a fouryear-old girl create something using blocks. She wanted to build a museum, so he asked her questions about the galleries she’d include, gently pushing her to use her imagination,” says Emond. “She soon said it was hard for her because she’s so small. He called over Jen, another colleague, who is under five feet fall and is an accomplished scientist. He lauded how her height has never stopped her. The girl’s expression changed and she had a look of, ‘I can do this!’ It was empowering to see.”

Make It Part Of Their Everyday Life…

“Encourage conversation and promote opportunities to learn about STEM applications in everyday life,” says King. You can do this using routine family activities you probably never thought about before: Crack open a great cookbook that talks about the science of food; include them in adult conversations around STEM subjects (think topics like the economy, global warming, endangered animals, electric cars, etc.); and really create memorable experiences. “Think back to the excitement you felt when you first mixed baking soda and vinegar, or put your hand on the ‘static ball’ (Van de Graaff generator) that makes your hair stand up,” says King. “Channel that enthusiasm when discussing STEM with kids.”

…And Provide Opportunities

Papel says this includes encouraging inquiry (the how and why), engaging in educational tourism (science centres, museums and other affordable programs available in your area) and taking time to include them in cooking, building, gardening, etc.

Alanna Norman, a registered early childhood educator in Ottawa, took notice of the recent interest in cars in her childcare centre. “I took out planks of wood and propped them up at different heights to create varying angles. I got cars and trucks of various sizes and sat down on the floor. Naturally curious, a few kids noticed what I was up to and came over.” Norman hypothesized about which ramp would make the cars go fastest, and which car would win if they were in a race. “A two-year-old girl chose the garbage truck as the quickest and we tested to see if she was right. Eventually I had all 10 kids in my room racing cars and narrating what was happening.”

Celebrate Achievements

“For kids, especially girls, there’s always competition to be ‘the best.’ I remember in high school, I was at the top of my class in math, physics and chemistry, and I was competing with two boys for top marks,” says King. “They were really tough on me and tried to get me down. I started questioning myself, even feeling embarrassed for all my hard work.”

The problem, she says, is that too many young girls downplay their intelligence to fit in. The bottom line is that we need to teach girls and boys to be confident and excited about science, technology, engineering and math, and remind them to strive for the best they can be, regardless of the subject or the field.

Supplement Your STEM

READ

It will foster their imagination. “The smartest, most interesting women I know have been avid readers from as young as three years old,” says Sarah King, a scientific advisor at the Canada Agricuture and Food Museum.

DOWNLOAD

Interactive encyclopedias are fantastic tools. “My sister is an aerospace engineer and she started learning about the subject when she was five,” says King. “Sparking interest in STEM from a young age can help familiarize them with topics that can sometimes overwhelm kids.

PLAY

There are tons of STEM toys on the market, perfect for engaging kids. From make your own slime kids to 4M Green Science’s Tin Can Robot, there’s definitely something for every kid. (Our fave? The Women of NASA LEGO set!)

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, Fall 2018

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