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Science Teaching Toolbox: Girl Power! Getting (and keeping) Girls Interested in Science

images: NASA, Yvonne in Willowick Ohio
I have had the great fortune of teaching science from Preschool to 6th grade at a small school. I'm often told by students that I am currently teaching (and those that have moved on to Upper School science) that gym and science are their favorite classes. Science ranks next to gym! Not too shabby, right? I'm not trying to toot my own horn here, much of this is the result of the attitude and support of the community I teach in. So what is the secret in my humble opinion?

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Although I can base this on nothing more than my own experience, I think the key to keeping girls, and all children interested in science, can be narrowed down to 6 basic ideas:

1. Starting Early
We have a strong Early Childhood program at my school. From the very beginning I introduce the idea that a scientist is someone who asks questions and then experiments to find out. If you are curious- you are a scientist. Keeps it simple, right? I also think it is helpful that the first experience these little guys and gals have in science is a female teacher, they see right off the bat that I don't look like the mad scientist depicted in the cartoons.

I have used a couple of children's books with great success for many years that depict male and female, child and adult scientists. What is a Scientist? by Barbara Lehn uses photographs of children engaging in science investigations. The text explains how these children are investigating questions they have about every day experiences. The second book is called Scientists Ask Questions by Ginger Garrett. This one uses photography once again and shows a wide variety of scientists asking questions and then using scientific ideas to find answers.

2. Breaking down stereotypes
If I could banish the lab coat, I would. I know there are some contexts when a lab coat is necessary, but seriously, how many jobs in the vast array of science fields actually involve wearing a lab coat?? Here is an experiment to understand your student or child's understanding of a scientist. Give them a piece of paper and ask them to draw a scientist. Does their picture involve a crazy haired man? Someone in a lab coat? Bubbling beakers? I've done this for many years, often several years in a row.

When I first started, I got a lot of beakers and Einstein-esque crazy hair. During the Harry Potter days a lot of the scientists were making "potions". Now, I am finding, after several years of hearing that we are all scientists as long as we are curious and asking questions, my students are drawing me, or even more thrilling...they draw THEMSELVES. I think it is key to point out that you don't have to be a professional scientists to be a scientist! It's also important to point people who are "real" scientists when you have the opportunity and note what they look like. Kids are never too little to have these discussions! It is all in how you present it.

I was recently inspired by this enterprising Mom of two girls who is working to break down stereotypes. These are the small steps we can all take to see our girls as scientists.

You can purchase a "This Girl Asks Why" t-shirt here.

3. Authentic experiences
If you keep experiences in the classroom real, pertinent, timely and hands on, all students benefit, especially girls who might not be encouraged to try such things otherwise. If you like reading my news articles to bring current events into your classroom, you probably are already doing these things. Are there local citizen science initiatives you can involve your students in? I try to incorporate citizen science projects into my curriculum because it gives kids a chance to feel empowered by contributing directly to current science. Check out my earlier posts that include information on these authentic science experiences:
It is easier for students to envision themselves in science careers if they have had experiences seeing what actually science feels like.

4. Age appropriate role models
There are many great woman scientists, many of which are finally being recognized for their accomplishments. Although I have much greater admiration for the Rosalind Franklins and Barbara McClintocks of the world now that I am an adult, kids can't always relate to grown ups. If there are ways to connect your students with young people in the sciences they will benefit from it.

Does your local University or Community College offer any outreach programs? Do you know someone with a college age child or recent grad in a science field? Get them into your classroom! Introducing kids to legends in science is important, but when you can connect them to someone they can actually talk to, that is not really that much older than them, it can make a huge impact. For several years I had science students with a college outreach program come help teach science classes once a week. I did not need the help teaching the classes, but my students loved having them come, and that was the value of the program. There were actually a higher percentage of females in the program than males. My students got to ask them questions and have informal conversations that they might not have had otherwise.

One year we were also lucky enough to bring some of our middle school students to have a pizza lunch with college biology students who were getting ready to present their senior projects. We were worried that our kids wouldn't ask questions and it would be an awkward event- it was exactly the opposite. The college students and middle school students really hit it off and were asking each other great science questions. Our students got a taste of what being in the sciences beyond grade school was like.

Here are two young ladies that are great science role models for our girls. Cycle for Science is a project that tackled stereotypes in science and give students examples of young women in science fields. Two young, female scientists are traveled across the country by bike and taught science classes along the way. Check out my post on their project "Cycle for Science: A Cross Country Science Adventure!". Visit their website for more information.

5. Modeling and Encouraging
The power is in your hands- seriously, it is! If we want to see change in our girls, we have to model it for them. Kids are looking to us to guide them. i.e. If your little girl is way into spiders, then you'll probably have to get over your fear of spiders to encourage her. I have had parents, who otherwise want their children to excel in science refuse to have certain science projects completed at home because they were too messy or involved something "too gross".

In order to protect my students I won't go into details here, but my point is this- if your student or child is excited about it, as long as it is safe, you need to encourage it. I have had students (mostly girls now that I really think about it, and girls who continue to be successful as they become young adults) bring in some of the craziest (and coolest) stuff to science class. I always let them share with the class, regardless of my agenda for the day. Starch from pasta, fish heads, dead butterflies, fungus, a rock collection, coyote bone, a cat skull, caterpillars, salamanders, newspaper articles, etc. (True story) If you want them to embrace science, you have to embrace their interest.

I can honestly say I never felt any push back from anyone about going into the sciences, and I truly believe it had 100% to do with supportive parents and teachers.

6. Empowering Materials
Provide examples and materials that empower girls and all students in your classrooms. Students need to see current scientists in action, not black and white photos or scientists who made great discoveries years ago.
I like to use the Natural Inquirer series from the USDA/Forest Service. This free journal focuses on recent research written in a digestible way for upper Elementary and Middle School students. Each article features a bio about the scientists involved. You can get free issues or read online by visiting their website.

I would also encourage searching current science news and then learning about the head researchers mentioned in the articles. Often they are women and they are studying fascinating things. A good place to start is the Student Society for Science website.
You can also use materials that encourage STEM learning for all. I use K'nex building systems with my third grade and the girls are just as interested in building as the boys, in some cases they just don't have the opportunity to build things like this at home. Companies like GoldieBlox are focusing on empowering girls in STEM fields. You might have seen their commercial that ended up going viral.

The GoldieBlox kits such as GoldieBlox and the Spinning Machine are building systems that include a book about Goldie to encourage girls in engineering. Other cool building kits are littleBits which are circuitry and electronics sets with an infinity of possibilities. Snap Circuits is another circuitry system which gives the option of creating over 101 different electronics with sensors and lights. I have a student who brought her Snap Circuits set in to school and everybody was hooked!

Now let's go make it happen! Do you have a great resource or idea for empowering girls in STEM to share with others? Comment below or e-mail me at

Women and girls in science resources:

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