Last week, there was a big brouhaha over a sign at the Carnegie Science Center that listed their scouting classes. After listing nine STEM-tastic activities for the boys (chemistry, engineering, astronomy, robotics), they list one class for the girls. And it’s called “Science with a Sparkle,” focusing on the science behind health and beauty products. You can even make some of your own. Sigh. Needless to say, folks were outraged. The Carnegie Science Center responded to let people know that they have offered a wider range of options in the past, but that they just weren’t seeing the enrollment. They invited troops (and other groups) to book private workshops if they didn’t see what they were looking for.
Now, this is not at all unusual. Science classes for girls often involve pink, and glitter, and so-called “girly” things. But, as much as I’d like to see the Carnegie Science Center continue to offer at least one general course to the girls (even if it is never filled), I think the blame and outrage is misplaced. The conversation about girls and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is so much more complicated than it is typically given credit for. The issues with Girl Scouts and STEM is a perfect of example of some of the major hurdles with engaging girls in STEM activities.
Girl Scouts and STEM
The Girl Scouts of America has a major national initiative to get girls involved in STEM. There are STEM-related badges, STEM websites (Imagine Engineering, Be the Video Game Developer), and STEM Research (a great read!). So where is the gap? As Carnegie Science Center’s experience shows, all the resources in the world don’t help if the girls aren’t encouraged and inspired to engage with them.
Each Girl Scout Troop is led by at least one adult, usually a woman. And each of those leaders has their own set of skills and interests that they bring to the table. There are leaders who are outdoorsy, those who love arts and crafts, and even some, like me, who have a penchant for engineering activities. I would chance to say that STEM-focused leaders are in the minority. And, much like I wouldn’t want to try to lead girls in a survival-style weekend in the woods, STEM is a hurdle for those who aren’t comfortable with it. Science activities are something that most people can handle, at least with the basics. But engineering and technology are difficult to tackle if you don’t have the concepts yourself. You end up having to learn alongside the girls, and that’s simply not comfortable for everyone. Still, with classes like Carnegie Science Center offers, most of the hurdles are removed, right?
What you may not know about Girl Scouts if you haven’t led a troop is that it is supposed to be girl-led. You’re supposed to follow the girl’s interests and passions. Often they vote for badges and activities to work on. I’ll give you an example of what this looks like. In our Brownie Troop last year, we wanted to choose a crest to add to the vests. There are plenty of options… shooting stars, violets, an arrow, trumpets, a white rose, a unicorn… We chose a few options with the descriptions of what they represented – strength, friendship, bravery, or good cheer – and put them out for a vote. All but two of the girls chose the unicorn (bravery). Is this at all surprising? Are there many groups of first grade girls that won’t choose a unicorn over a pansy? So, now, even if you have great STEM classes available, and even if you have a leader who cares about STEM opportunities, you still must contend with a group of girls who may not have ever had exposure to STEM beyond the classroom. If you were given the choice between a hike, a craft project, a charitable activity, and a robotics workshop, which would you choose? What about your friends? When it comes to a vote, what will the majority of the girls choose?
There are some solutions to these challenges, of course. One is for Girl Scouts to offer more STEM training for leaders or, better still, to include some STEM activities in the training they are already required to complete. Perhaps they could offer incentives for leaders to engage more in STEM. But that doesn’t solve the question of the girls. You can do what I did, which is break the rules, and not ask the question. I simply told the girls we were spending two weeks on robotics and then presented activities I knew they would enjoy. If asked in the future, I hope that many of them would see robotics as a fun option, rather than a mysterious one. The other is the “false” choice, which is to offer two equally mysterious STEM options and have them choose between those. Neither really meets the spirit of the girl-led principle, but practically speaking, we also can’t expect kids to push themselves out of their own comfort zones.
Girls at Home and the Girl-ification of STEM
The root of the STEM challenge with girls lies in the home. Much like reading with your kids, introducing them to a range of activities (including the sometimes scary engineering and technology) builds a foundation for their future. We don’t question this with boys… they get LEGO bricks and blocks and cars and science sets and video games and a range of other things that naturally build their interest and skills in STEM. And while I have no problem with dolls (I think more boys could use some dolls), girls need those kind of toys, too. They need things they can build with, things that move when you push them, things that you can create with. They need things with moving parts. The study I listed above states that Girls who are interested in STEM had more exposure to STEM activities:
STEM girls were more likely to have done hands-on science activities when they were younger (51% vs. 37% of non-STEM girls), gone to science/tech museums (66% vs. 55% non-STEM), and engaged in an extracurricular STEM activity (36% vs. 13% non-STEM).
This brings me to the question of sparkle science and the girl-ification of STEM. Let’s be practical. How many girls see their mothers (or other women) applying and wearing cosmetics every single day? How many of them see their mothers engage in STEM activities (other than things like cooking, which is another popular science topic for girls)? When we, as adults, focus on the superficial things in our own lives, we’re sending strong messages to our kids. When girls see their mothers putting on makeup and worrying about clothing choices, they learn that those are important things. Why wouldn’t we expect them to choose a tangible and practical workshop like learning to make the products they see used in their home vs. something “frivolous” like building a robot or with a vague name like “engineering” or “science.” What adults see as girls choosing trivial applications of science and engineering may really be girls reflecting the values and interests they see in the home. There is nothing wrong with it as long as we are providing them with the next steps to build on their interests and a way to connect what they have learned to the bigger picture.
We Need More Sparkling Science
In all of the debate about “Science with a Sparkle,” there is another issue. The girls who have taken this course have had an introduction to Chemistry. If the course leader has done their job, they’ve encouraged the girls to think beyond this application (pardon the pun) and into the importance of chemistry over all. It’s a great time to hook them into a more advanced chemistry workshop. But what about all of the other girls? With nine workshops for boys and just one for girls, we can infer that nine times as many boys are getting STEM workshops than girls. Using what we’ve discussed above, how do we get more girls in the door?
I’d argue that we need more sparkle. And more purpose. Because although as adults, “Cub Scouts Science”, may seem to be more STEM-suitable than “Science with a Sparkle,” the reality is that it is vague. And the description on the Carnegie Science Center website (to continue to pick on them) says nothing at all. There is no application. Perhaps we need to teach our girls to love science for the sake of science, but there’s something to be said for science and technology with a purpose. A class on engineering bridges could be tied to an understanding of the needs of communities with limited resources. A weather class could be aimed at helping for emergency weather preparedness. Heck, folks, how about a class on building a robotic unicorn?
Whether by nature or nurture, we know that generally speaking, girls see and interact with the world differently than their male peers. We don’t want to pigeon-hole them, or only provide stereotypical options for engaging with STEM, but there’s also no shame in offering classes that will draw more girls in and engage them. Perhaps before the Carnegie Science Centers of the world sit down to draft their next series of classes, they could take some time to talk with local girls and see what interests them, from the day-to-day of household life, to their hobbies, to their global social and political concerns. And then design STEM classes around those topics. And, while you’re at it, do that for the boys, too.