Many initiatives aim to increase girls’ participation in STEM, but until we expand our “STEM girl” definition beyond the gifted young math students, science fair winners and traditional Lego builders, we’ll all miss out. Let’s change our perception of what a science and math kid looks like. That way, all girls will see how they can use STEM to further their own interests, talents and dreams.
The five following ideas—taken from my new book Count Girls In, which I co-authored with Dr. Karen Panetta, Tufts University’s dean for graduate engineering and founder of Nerd Girls—are a few examples of how you can keep the STEM door open for the girls in your life.
Tell STEM stories.
Some girls are thrilled when you dump a box of gears and rods in front of them, others not so much. But that doesn’t mean they’re not STEM kids. We see two main entry points into STEM: The students inspired by the science and technology itself, and those inspired by a problem they want to solve. Many girls follow the second path, but it can be a little harder to find.
Help girls further their interests—whether it’s climate change, renewable energy, personalized medicine or anything else—by sharing stories with them about these issues and the diverse people across many fields who are working on them today.
Meet her where she’s at.
If we say gears and building sets are “math and science” and dolls are not, and your daughter’s interest happens to be dolls, then we’re sending a message that she’s not a math and science kid.
Instead of trying to entice your daughter with the latest STEM toy, provide her with materials to make her own doll clothes—felt and masking tape, or fabric and a small sewing kit. Let her take clothes you are discarding and upcycle the fabric into something new. Give her a cardboard box to turn into a doll’s bed, or a set of shoeboxes to become a multi-floor condo dollhouse, maybe with some gears for an elevator. Bring the math and science to her and help her see that she’s a designer and maker, too.
Rethink the role model.
When you talk about STEM, go beyond the superstars and their very particular accomplishments. High achievers should be celebrated, but many young people will see their success as unattainable, and hearing only from those women who loved math from the time they were little can make some girls feel like they’ve already missed the boat. Instead, ensure that the girl in your life has the chance to engage with a variety of role models she can relate to. Find stories of people who discovered STEM late in life, or who failed Calculus in college but persevered to land their dream job. This will be inspiring when they see women blazing the trail and motivating to hear about role models—of any gender—who do not fit the traditional STEM stereotype.
If you feel your child is already behind those who have been going to pricey robotics camp since they were in elementary school, don’t sweat it. Don’t buy into the idea that only the kid who focuses on one solitary STEM pursuit from a young age will find success in that particular field. It’s not necessary, and, frankly, it’s not always desirable.
Childhood is a time for young children to follow their inclinations, explore, have adventures, experiment and be fascinated by the world around them, in whatever that means to them on a given day. These are the kids who will become our future innovators when they use their creativity to combine their unique experiences in new, never-considered ways.
Take, for example, the dancer who helped NASA develop robots that moved more gracefully, and thus more fluidly, in space, or the MIT researchers who were inspired by origami to develop a tiny robot that, after being swallowed in a dissolvable capsule, unfurls itself inside a child’s stomach to retrieve an ingested button battery. Neither of these things would have happened without an active imagination, which starts with play at a young age.
Have a positive attitude.
Most importantly, check your own mindset. Because if you don’t see her as a STEM kid, or if you don’t see STEM pursuits as worthwhile, interesting and attainable, she won’t either. Everyone plays an important role here—not just parents. Girls look to the women in their lives for cues on how they should think and behave, so it is critical that girls see their mothers, aunts, teachers and so on engaging with STEM in positive ways. (This means no more saying that you hate math, or that you can’t help with math homework!) A father who shares his enjoyment and appreciation for math, science, and technology with his daughter will also have a profound influence.
We’re not saying that every young girl is meant to enter a STEM field, but the decision should be hers. We can work to keep the door open for all children so that, at any age, they have the opportunity to blend STEM with their passions in ways that make sense for them.
Today, we need diverse thinkers more than ever, and STEM confidence and competence will help regardless of what careers our children choose. More women politicians with strong science backgrounds to serve on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology? Yes, please. More female high school teachers and college professors to act as mentors and role models to young women? Definitely. More mechanical engineers with a focus on renewable energy? We need them. Give her opportunity, and let her take it from there.
Katianne Williams is the author of Count Girls In: Empowering Girls to Combine Any Interests with STEM to Open a World of Opportunity, which released August 1. Purchase her book on Amazon.