Why Janie Can't Engineer:
Raising Girls to Succeed
By Pat McNees
See also, below: Why so few women work in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs
and Latina mini-revolution in the computer classroom
Would your attitude toward physics have been different if your introduction to it had involved devising a catapult to send the head of a Barbie doll over a castle wall during a mock medieval siege?
Girls in a research project funded by the National Science Foundation learned through trial and error that a Barbie doll head is hard to catapult unless you make it heavier — for example, by inserting lead sinkers into it. They also learned that it was easier to catapult a potato. Then they learned about density and velocity, which were not presented simply as abstractions.
It's enough to make you want to go back to school.
Hands-on learning is one key to getting more girls hooked on science -- which is important for overcoming the national shortfall in scientifically literate workers. That point comes up in many contexts in a book I wrote for the National Science Foundation (New Formulas for America's Workforce: Girls in Science and Engineering by Pat McNees. Download by chapter (PDF) or download whole book, free. Best practices for teaching science--to strengthen the science workforce.) In that book I summarize for parents and educators what investigators on 224 projects have learned about how to get more girls and women to study for careers in science, technology and engineering.
Not surprisingly, a lot of the things we do to our children in the name of education discourage them from taking the gateway courses required for many rewarding careers. Parents and teachers expect different things from girls and boys, for example, which affects how they perform and often limits what they learn -- and what they expect from themselves. Some of the best guidelines for working with young girls came from a Girls Inc. project called Teaching Smart:
• Help girls get past the "yuck" factor. Science is messy, so put aside your desire for clean girls and surfaces. Girls who are afraid of getting dirty aren't born that way -- they're made. In after-school science programs, girls all over the nation are being encouraged to get messy, explore, analyze, dissect, hypothesize and make mistakes. (In middle school, when girls begin disappearing from the science track, single-sex science activities help them embrace the messiness and uncertainty of science, away from boys who tease them and hog computers.) As an adult, you can help girls resist the pressure to behave in "feminine" ways. Encourage them to get good and grubby: to dig in a riverbed, change a tire or explore an engine. Let them learn they have a right to be themselves.
• Let girls make big, interesting mistakes. Girls who are overly protected in the lab or on the playground have few chances to assess risks and solve problems on their own. If teachers are doing things right, once-dreaded mistakes become hypotheses. Girls are urged to go back to the drawing board to figure out why their newly assembled electric door alarm doesn't work or why their water filter gets clogged. (Teachers tend to push boys, but not girls, past their initial frustration on such projects.) Supported by adults instead of rescued, girls learn to embrace their curiosity, face their fear and trust their own judgment.
• Assume girls are interested in math, science and technology. Too many girls -- and children of color -- still get the message that math and science aren't for them. Given encouragement and the right setting, girls jump at the chance to dismantle machines, build rockets, care for and study insects and small animals, and solve logic puzzles.
Encouraging girls to learn and experiment -- to take risks and learn by doing -- helps them feel empowered and self-confident enough to try things they otherwise would not try. But many of the adults who help them must first overcome their own acquired resistance to, or dread of, science and technology.
Girls -- indeed, most students -- respond best to hands-on science. A great way to squelch their interest in science is to "demonstrate" it while they watch. Another is to play "guess the right answer," as if all they can do is master a completed body of knowledge (a useless quest as scientific knowledge routinely becomes outdated). In most schools, teachers need a chance to experience hands-on science education before they can figure out how to engage students in it. Hands-on workshops can give them, too, the chance to experiment, be messy, make mistakes and capture the spirit of scientific inquiry. And getting parents involved in hands-on activities (such as making two batches of ice cream, using different amounts of salt, and comparing the rate at which the batches freeze) helps them understand that engaging in science is much more than avoiding wrong answers on a test. Getting caught up in their children's science activities sometimes lights fires and opens doors for the mothers, too.
Girls of all ages like math and science to be useful and relevant to their everyday lives. A college course on how to take apart a computer and put it back together attracted 300 male students and no young women -- until the announcement describing the course changed, to say that the computers they worked on would later be given to needy schools. Then the women signed up.
Similarly, math problems on a computer program called Animal Watch engaged girls' interest because calculations involved saving endangered animal species from extinction. Most girls -- and minority students -- want to know how what they're learning can be applied in real life. Engineering takes on meaning when students have to navigate a campus in a wheelchair (or wearing spectacles smeared with Vaseline, to get a sense of navigating nearly blind) before being asked to design handicapped-accessible facilities.
Not all girls are alike. Some already know they like math and science and just need connections made and barriers reduced. Some have yet to discover that math, science, and technology are for girls. For them, it's important to arrange for exposure to role models they can look up to (the younger, the better), who convey how "cool" it is to do science -- and show them a possible future, in which there is more than one way to use a Barbie doll.
This article, adapted from the National Science Foundation publication New Formulas for America's Workforce: Girls in Science and Engineering was first published in the Style Section of the Washington Post, Tuesday, January 6, 2004, Page C09. Copyright (c) 2004 by Pat McNees. You can read the book free online (or download).
Pre-school classes and after-school internships change attitudes and land Hispanic teenagers high-tech jobs.
Although Carson City is Nevada’s capital, it is a rural community with a population just over 50,000, much of it poor or nearly poor. Its main industry is gaming, but in recent years many businesses with high-tech needs have relocated to this part of Nevada, where they have difficulty attracting qualified personnel.
A conversation with a student led technology teacher Anita Brooks to create a program to integrate Hispanic girls into the world of computer technology. A senior enrolled in Brooks’ computer-aided drafting class at Carson High School told Brooks that for students like her, for whom English was a second language, learning to use a computer was like learning a third language. Language problems kept the student from being able to apply concepts she understood, despite two hours of work outside the class for every hour of class work. “Sometimes she would just put her head down and cry,” said Brooks. Through the Carson City School District, Brooks proposed a small experimental project to recruit Hispanic teenage girls into the computer-aided design (CAD) programs that would prepare them for high-tech jobs.
Carson City GREATS (girls really enjoy advanced technical skills) was launched in September 1999, just as the high school opened its new High Tech Center. The director of the high school’s School-to-Careers program arranged for five local businesses to provide internships for five students each semester. Interns worked 90 hours a semester, earning either $6 an hour or half a credit for participating in the project. Girls were to be recruited from CAD courses, but because no girls had signed up for those courses, the bilingual teacher’s aide recruited students from the English as a Second Language (ESL) program. Recruitment meant selling the program to the girls’ parents, many of whom believed that a woman’s place is in the home, a future that did not call for advanced computer classes. She persuaded the parents that the girls needed to study if they were to have a better life.
The girls also enrolled in the school’s AutoCAD course and were given remedial instruction in English/Language Art and math, if needed. In addition to all their other classes, the girls were enrolled in a geographic information systems (GIS) class at 7 a.m. in the High Tech Center’s Spatial Analysis/GIS/CAD technology lab. All instructions and demonstrations were in English, which the aide then translated into Spanish. Lab assignments were given in English. The aide attended a two-day training session in GIS, which made her more confident and productive in the classroom.
The results of the research and education activities were startling. It was assumed that perhaps eight to ten Hispanic girls would be interested in the program, but those estimates were far surpassed. Not only did the girls learn skills that could help them land high tech jobs, but their confidence levels soared, they became more proficient in English, and during the summer they improved their math, raising their scores on state math proficiency exams. A program through which students could learn in both languages empowered the girls to learn that they had far more ability than they thought they had—which opened the door to more learning. Enrollment in high technology classes increased substantially in 2000-2001.
The girls’ comfort zone expanded and, deciding they needed a support group outside the classroom, they started a lunchtime club that would meet weekly to discuss such concerns as how to achieve their career goals without alienating their families. They invited speakers and took field trips, to expand their career horizons, but they also wanted to help Latinas who had just immigrated. For the club to be formally sanctioned on the Carson High School campus, they had to present their club’s mission and goals to the entire student council. Twenty of the girls attended the meeting, one presented their proposal, and, after asking many questions, the student council unanimously approved the club. Speaking up for themselves before students who barely knew they attended the same school was a monumental achievement for these girls, who had to articulate their desires and answer questions on the fly. They opened lines of communication with the majority population that had not existed before, and in so doing they took the first step in attaining their dreams and broke ground for many girls to come after them.
GREATS gave these girls a true sense of the possible. Before, they had been disenfranchised from learning. Now they are standing up for themselves and asking more from themselves, their counselors, their peers, and their teachers. They are signing up for classes they never would have considered before. They view college as a viable option, which it was not before. And they are advocating for each other as well as for themselves.
The project brought national recognition to the flexibility and untapped resources of GIS as a multilingual tool for teaching. Carson High School and its instructor have become information resources for other institutions interesting in instituting a similar program. The Nevada State Department of Education funded an additional year of the program through the Technology Leadership Challenge Fund. During the summer of 2000, the Carson City GIS Department was a mentoring agency for ten girls, who got field experience gathering data for use in Carson City’s geographic information system. The girls became a valuable resource for the city agency while amassing valuable workplace skills.
This account is drawn partly from a story by Teri Vance in The Nevada Appeal, February 12, 2000.
Mastering English and technology: The schedule
Week 1. No technology content was presented. To break up potential cliques and encourage the girls to be mutually supportive, the class engaged in “ice-breakers,” including a game of Human Bingo that required the girls to learn pieces of life information about each other. These lighthearted activities promoted a safety net for the girls and cemented their desire to continue with the class. After assessments in computer and English proficiency, instruction began.
Week 2. The girls learned Basic Windows and printing instructions, then took pictures of each other with digital cameras, opening images from floppy disks and printing the images out—as a way to engage their interest and get them experimenting with file navigation on the network, saving, and document printing.
Weeks 3 to 9. The girls learned analysis concepts of geographic information systems using ArcVoyager software. Some concepts almost defied translation. Gross national product (or GNP), for example, is a difficult concept even for native speakers of English. After many tears and much tenderness—with other students helping to translate— the girls experiencing discomfort agreed to remain in the class. After completing each unit, students were required to apply what they learned with a small project of their own – so the teacher could tell if they really understood what they were doing or were just reading and “parroting” what they read or saw in the lessons. During this phase the students were all highly motivated and ready to work, diligently completing all of the assignments and coming in during their breaks to get extra help from the aide.
Week 10. During the first nine weeks, some of the students showed tremendous improvement in verbal and written skills. (One student, who spoke no English when the class started, beckoned the instructor for assistance and said, “Ms. Brooks, I have confusion in my heart,” articulating the need for help and showing the courage to seek it in her own words.) But many of the girls, despite becoming more English and technology literate, still refused to speak English outside of the classroom. This concerned the staff, because on the job they would have to be able and willing to speak English. Several days were set aside to discuss the girls’ concern, and the girls admitted anxiety about making mistakes in English, concern about being laughed at in the classroom by the Hispanic boys. Not all the boys would laugh but enough did that they felt humiliated in English-only classes and preferred speaking Spanish. After long discussions about career and cultural issues, the girls were encouraged to get past prior hurts and to start practicing their English skills. To show good faith, the non-Spanish speaking teacher offered to give a ten-minute lecture in Spanish if they would agree to do three of their four GIS presentations in English.
Weeks 11-18. The girls progressed to ArcView, standard software for the GIS industry, and became responsible for relating what they had learned to a new project. They were learning skills that required they query or narrow down their data. Once they understood the new tools, they were instructed on how to create a layout, show and describe the results of their work, and present their findings. They found this graphic part of the curriculum very satisfying.
ELLIS (English language software). In addition to regular classwork, the girls were encouraged to come in during study period or on their own time to use the English language software procured with the NSF grant. ELLIS is an interactive multimedia platform with microphone and headphones. The students may tape themselves and then hear themselves speaking. Visuals show specifically where points of articulation are so students can see how they should be enunciating. The software provides regular comprehension tests and gives girls feedback on their progress. The aide is there to help with software mechanics, but the students drive their own progress. Their English skills, both written and spoken, improved markedly.
A project of the Carson City (Nevada) School District
Investigators: Valerie Dockery , Anita Brooks, Gregory Marangi
Reprinted from New Formulas for America's Workforce: Girls in Science and Engineering (download the book free).
Why so few women work in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)
and what can be done to change that
Gender Equality Is Valuable but Vague (Rosa Inocencio Smith, The Books Briefing,The Atlantic, 3-6-2020).
• The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness by Jill Filipovic
• The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
• Ida: A Sword Among Lions--Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching by Paula J. Giddings (Ida B. Wells’s uncompromising view of suffrage)
• The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know, by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman
• All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies, by Patricia Bell-Scott, Akasha Hull, and Barbara Smith
• Proud Shoesby Pauli Murray
• Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky
• Women of Color in Tech: A Blueprint for Inspiring and Mentoring the Next Generation of Technology Innovators by Susanne Tedrick (April 2020)
• Cracking the Digital Ceiling: Women in Computing Around the World by Carol Frieze and Jeria L. Quesenberry
• Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826-1860 by Thomas Dublin
• In Praise of Difficult Women: Life Lessons From 29 Heroines Who Dared to Break the Rules by Karen Karbo
ARTICLES AND BROADCASTS:
• Women in STEM resources (Sarah Rugheimer) A repository of peer-reviewed research and resources about the challenges facing white women and men and women of color in science.
• The Consequences of Being Girly in STEM (From the Lab Bench, 11-7-18) As female scientists we suffer harmful stereotypes regardless. So be yourself.
• Good News Story: Nigerian Irish Teen Girls Win Prize For Dementia App (Nadia Whitehead, Goats and Soda section, NPR, 10-8-2020) The Nigerian-Irish teens are the champions of Technovation Girls, an international competition that challenges young women to develop an app that can solve a problem in their community. The annual competition is hosted by Technovation, a nonprofit organization that empowers girls to become leaders in tech.
• Remember Books? Researcher Shows How Reading Is Superior to Screen Time (Nick Zagorski, Psychiatric News, 3-20-2020) Among other things: '...when it comes to shared reading, using basic picture books provides optimal stimulation for toddlers. In this study, Hutton and colleagues performed MRI scans of children as they either listened to an audiobook, a book with static illustrations, or an animated book. “We termed the results a ‘Goldilocks Effect,’ ” Hutton said. “Spoken words by themselves were associated with greater ‘strain’ in the children’s language pathways, while animation seemed to be overstimulating their visual networks.” Combining static pictures with words provided just the right visual-language integration at this age, he said.'
• RockEdu Resource Center (Rockefeller University resources to draw interest in commonly taught science topics, with sections on Corner Store experiments, teaching resources, guide to outreach, and Incubator blog ("hatching conversations about science").
• Moon Landing 50th Anniversary: The Story of Margaret Hamilton (Rebel Girls video for young girls), on the wonderful Rebel Girls Boundless website
• Women in Cryptocurrency and Blockchain (BitIRA). Superb collection of links to resources on the topic, plus a video: Crypto Could Make Women Rich - And How Bitcoin Will Rise Again (YouTube video, Balancing the Ledger, 4-25-18)
•Why Aren’t There More Women In Blockchain? (Science Friday, 3-6-18) Excerpts from guest host Flora Lichtman's interviews with Veronica Reynolds, Nellie Bowles, Kerry Flynn)
•CryptoChicks crash the male cryptocurrency party (Mark Albertson, Siliconangle, 3-6-18)
•Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women? (Liza Mundy, The Atlantic, April 2017)
• Learning To Code; A Model Example (Career Foundry blog, 4-16-15) "Victoria’s Secret model Lyndsey Scott is a secret – and celebrity – coder, refuting the myth that all programmers are white, male, 20-somethings with a passion for facial hair. While traveling the world for huge fashion houses like Prada and Louis Vuitton, she also developed seven apps for the iPhone on the side, two of which have since been taken on by Apple."
• Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science? (Eileen Pollack, NY Times, 10-3-13). "Of all the data her study uncovered, Handelsman finds the mentoring results to be the most devastating. “If you add up all the little interactions a student goes through with a professor — asking questions after class, an adviser recommending which courses to take or suggesting what a student might do for the coming summer, whether he or she should apply for a research program, whether to go on to graduate school, all those mini-interactions that students use to gauge what we think of them so they’ll know whether to go on or not. . . . You might think they would know for themselves, but they don’t.” Handelsman shook her head. “Mentoring, advising, discussing — all the little kicks that women get, as opposed to all the responses that men get that make them feel more a part of the party.”
• Why Women Might Be Giving Up On Math And Science (All Things Considered, NPR, 10-6-13 ) Science, math and engineering are still dominated by men, and few professors in those fields are women. Guest Eileen Pollack says researcher Jo Handelsman came up with an experiment using a made-up job application; the same job application was submitted with only one difference; one version came from someone named Jennifer, and the other came from someone named John. "And the results were astonishing. Jennifer was judged less competent, less hirable and less worthy of mentoring or being encouraged to go on in the field than John, solely on the basis of the name. And it was young women and men in the field doing this, not just the old guys."
• Sex and science (Cathy Young, Salon, 4-12-01). Are women discriminated against in the lab? Or are gender imbalances due to intellectual differences?
• The Reluctant Feminist (Kate Zernike, NY Times, 4-8-01)
• Why Aren't More Girls Attracted To Physics? (Shankar Vedantam, All Tech Considered, NPR, 8-9-13). University of Texas sociologist says,"What we found is that in communities that had a higher percentage of women in the labor force who are working in science, technology, engineering and math, that in those schools, girls were as likely as boys to take physics, or even more likely." By contrast, girls growing up in communities where most working women are in jobs traditionally held by women such as child care or nursing might not see the possibilities that exist.
• Exploring the Gender Gap and the Absence of Equality (NY Times, 8-25-98). Natalie Angier, a conversation with Virginia Valian
• Research on Discrimination :: Bias Literacy (a summary digest of the evidence for discrimination, especially against women in science and engineering, by Ruta Sevo and Daryl Chubin) You can download the 25-page report, a reading list, and more.
• Where Popular Science Is Called Women's Work (Samuel G. Freedman, NY Times, 4-27-05) About a private school that teaches smart.
• eGFI Dream up the future. A site by American Society for Engineering Education and partners committed to promoting and improving K-12 STEM and engineering.
• Ruta Sevo's 10 x 10 list (for students, parents, teachers -- a great guide to resources)
• Afterschool.org (strengthening afterschool programs)
• Advancing Women: Annotated Bibliography (pdf, Virginia Valian, Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center)
• Technology websites for girls and young women (Joan Korenman)
• CyberPlayground for girls and young women. Do worry your pretty little head about it!
• Online resources for girls in technology (University of Wisconsin, Whitewater)
• Geek Girl
• Using Title IX to get equal opportunities for girls in science and engineering (Ruta Sevo)