Keys To Engaging Girls In STEM

Girls in STEM

Through my experience teaching at the university level, and what I myself have discovered in teaching kindergarten through 12th grade, I’ve identified three keys to building our pipeline of female creative leaders and innovators: help break them free from stereotypes, let them embrace failure, and encourage entrepreneurialism. I will outline them over the next few posts. Here is the first one: break free from stereotypes.

Girls are set on a certain path when they are primarily given dolls as toys or when they see mostly male heroes and science whizzes on TV cartoons. An antidote to so many of the prevailing images targeted at children—in popular culture, media, cartoons, and fairy tales—is working with girls as young as five to teach them about additional possibilities that exist for women and about the real-life female heroes and science whizzes.

An entire industry has been built around princesses and the princes who rescue them—toys, costumes, posters, decor, and bedroom furniture. But less about girls who become self-reliant problem-solvers.

Many fairy tales would have us believe that girls are delicate and sensitive. Consider The Princess and the Pea, a story about a royal princess who is disturbed because she can feel a pea beneath her mattress. Her devoted, hapless father piles mattress upon mattress—twenty in all—until his daughter is high in the air. Yet the sensitive princess still feels that annoying pea.

Can you imagine tennis superstar Serena Williams being disturbed by a tiny pea? Or Facebook financial chief Sheryl Sandberg? Or Spanx creator Sara Blakely? If a pea irritated them, you can be sure that they’d lift the mattress with one hand and flick the pea out of the way with the other.

How about counterbalancing these princess stories with a grittier alternative? One of my favorite children’s books is The Paper Bag Princess. The Paper Bag Princess doesn’t wait helplessly to be rescued by a prince. She fights off a dragon and saves them both. When her finery is scorched and her skin made sooty by the dragon’s fiery breath, the resourceful Paper Bag Princess cuts openings in a brown paper bag and wears it. This doesn’t go over well with the prince, who is unable to acknowledge that this quick-witted princess had saved his life. But by then the princess sees the prince for who what he is—nitpicking, entitled, and not very grateful—and she goes off happily on her own.

Which story do you like better? Honestly, it’s fine with me if someone prefers The Princess and the Pea. It’s a beloved classic. You can’t but laugh at the situations in it, and my daughters enjoy the tale. But let’s balance it with a story that encourages girls to dream of a future in which they can become whatever they put their minds to, a future in which they’re gritty, independent and resilient, a future where it’s okay to wear a paper bag if you’ve torn your clothes after having killed a dragon and rescued a prince.

Early stereotypes matter. We as parents and educators have the opportunity to filter them. Studies of the brain show that specific neural pathways are created at early ages and affect the way that children perceive the world. Encourage young children, particularly girls, to be curious, and expose them to stereotypical “boy” activities such as Legos, building models, coding, mechanics and more. Instead of Barbie dolls and princess outfits, give girls toys that require them to use logic and to engage in problem-solving. Set them up with messy science experiments and tricky puzzles so that they discover how things work.

Girls need to learn that they can succeed in STEM fields, even before they enter school and are shown what girls “should” and “shouldn’t” do.

I’d love to hear from you about how you expose girls to different activities than the ones that social norms demand that girls engage in. Thank you for sharing.

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