Young teen with a medal around her neck for her science fair project on antibacterial agents

How to Raise a Steminist

If we define feminism as the belief that all genders should have equal rights and opportunities, STEMinists believe that all genders should have equal opportunities in STEM fields. Sounds like a no-brainer, something with which we can all agree. There are no official barriers to girls in STEM fields or classes, and yet we are far outnumbered.

We’ve seen it in our own schools, in the number of girls in computer science, engineering and robotics classes. There are only a few. We’ve also seen it in how many girls are twice accelerated in math–they’re outnumbered by boys about 4 to 1. Why? What messaging are our girls getting that tells them these subjects aren’t for them? Or that these subjects are less interesting or perhaps, ugh, hard? Why are they self selecting out?

When people of diverse backgrounds collaborate, what they create is more inclusive, richer and often more appealing. We need women not only at the boardroom table, but on the design floor, creating tomorrow’s technology, and finding solutions to issues that touch us.

So, how do we foster a love of science in general? 

Encourage curiosity. When children are young, we marvel with them at the beauty of a spider web. We take them to nature centers and take pleasure at their delight. As they grow, we need to continue to encourage their natural curiosity and to expand their vision. I’ve always found the best way to do that is with people who are passionate about their subject. Here in Northern Westchester there are opportunities to marvel at the night sky with the Westchester Amateur Astronomers. The Westchester Land Trust and Lewisboro Land Trust organize hikes and other events to explore the best asset around: our nature preserves. And the Bedford Audubon Society invites people to participate in its bird count and other research programs.

Make it fun. Learning needn’t feel like school. We learn best while enjoying ourselves, so be playful. When we think of learning as play, we’re also free to try out new ideas, even if we’re not sure they’ll work. That’s an important element needed in the sciences, and also in life. We can call it grit, perseverance, iteration.

Whether it’s mixing up a batch of conductive dough, or helping a child design a science fair project, we try to keep it light, observing what works and asking questions about why sometimes the marble cannon only sputtered and then trying a different strategy. Sometimes, for example for a science fair project, we need to take careful notes, but for a weekend soldering project we just talk as we go.

Name their accomplishments. It’s too easy to discount our accomplishments today. So call them out. “You just soldered that like a pro!” goes a long way. The flip side of this is to rephrase what they might consider failures. It’s only a failure if that is where you stop. I like to say something like “that’s really interesting. You found that we can eliminate that path and now we can move on. What do you think you can change to make it …?” Finding out what doesn’t work is a very valuable thing itself.

Give them real tools. If you give a young child access to your kitchen, let her peel her own carrot and help mix a batch of cookies, she will gain so much more confidence and pride than if you give her pretend kitchen/food toys. My favorite nursery school has tree stumps covered in nails the children have hammered. The same holds true as kids get older. If you buy a drone, try one you can code, like the Tello, or build your own Tiny Whoop. Notice the difference between items that are simply toys and ones that feel like toys but help the child to learn some new concepts or skills. And if you find yourself working on a project using power tools, or even just building some IKEA furniture, give them a power screwdriver and show them how to use it.

At MKR LAB we search out real components that our students can use. We love open source software and our students are learning computer languages and components that are widely used professionally. Some cute kits have made their way into our kids’ hands and often they simplify the science or tech too much. The robot that drive like an RC car sits on a shelf. The circuits kit that snaps together was used once or twice. But the little flashlight my daughter soldered herself is used nightly for bedtime reading after lights-out.

Insist. Sometimes a child pushes back, says she isn’t interested in programming, doesn’t want to take that accelerated math class. It’s important to hear them and try to address their concerns. When our own burgeoning steminist said she really didn’t want to take AP Computer Science as a high school freshman, we assured her that she had all the prerequisites, and that it really didn’t matter that it wasn’t typically done, that she was capable and that we could help her if she ever needed. She still pushed back. Our answer: computer programming is a matter of basic literacy today and she needed to take it. Period. In the end we pulled a “because I said so.” She did well and her experience added to her growing sense of confidence in her abilities. One of our jobs as parents is to show our kids all that is open to them so that when they choose their path they are making an informed choice. I like to set high, but attainable expectations, which will vary from child to child.

Put the “A” in STEAM. Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math. Art is where the magic happens, and once it is integrated into a project, kids are hooked. Art incorporates the personal vision. It’s what your robot looks like. It’s the texture or form of your eTextile project. It’s how you animate your program or game. In our robotics classes the art component might also be how we interact with our robots, how we integrate components to be appealing. We can build function, but when we also develop and refine form our projects become more engaging and compelling. Looking at STEAM from another perspective, we can use STEM to elevate our art. I’m working on electroforming to create jewelry right now, using tech to create art.

Be a role model. Let your girls see you try new things. Let them see you make mistakes and your imperfections. Generally speaking, girls can be somewhat risk averse. Personally, I like to know I will succeed before I do something. I’m working on taking chances and letting my own kids see the process. Lately I’ve been trying to make conductive ink for an interactive mural I want to paint, and my first three attempts were unsuccessful, but I’m persevering. It can be done! I also want my girls to see women doing amazing things so I try to highlight inspiring women, whether they are figures in the news or women in our lives. I sing their praises.

Help others. I had a really interesting conversation with an engineering teacher at World MakerFaire last Fall. He brought a group of students, largely girls, to demonstrate a community service program building solar lights for partner schools in Africa. He said that his robotics classes were an instant hit with the guys, but that many of the girls weren’t interested until he found a project that helped others. They had to engineer their lights for the specific places and ways they were to be used, and then they fabricated the lights and sent them to their partner schools. My takeaway is that perhaps we need to connect the dots for girls: engineering classes can teach crucial skills needed to find new energy systems and other innovations to tackle climate change. Robotics can improve our medical techniques, help us create better consumer products and improve lives. Study of agricultural tech can help us feed the world. I think this is a good thing to talk about with ALL kids, not just girls.

All girls classes or groups? I’m a little torn on this. Do girls participate more actively in gender-specific groups? Perhaps, but I don’t think I will offer a program that leaves out the guys. I have a son too and he also needs opportunities to explore his interests, as do many of our male students. These kids are voracious learners and I can’t imagine leaving them out. So instead I try to engage all our students, making sure to check in with the quietest ones. And I’m finding that the girls who walk in our doors are persistent and tenacious. They’re also super sharp and funny too. I delight in their successes.

Thanks so much for reading this. Now I’m off to build paper automatons with my 9-year old daughter, because I don’t ever want her to tell me an engineering class is too hard (and they’re lots of fun!)