Stop! In the Name of Science!
Getting Girls Interested in STEM from an Early Age
With the recent death of Dr. Sally Ride, I have been thinking a lot about what science education was like for me as a kid and what it might be like for Muffin and Squeaker as they grow up.
Muffin and Squeaker have been interested in how the world works from as early as they could ask questions. As the girls have gotten older and more mature in their understanding, Michael and I have started giving more sophisticated answers to their questions. And now they have reached a point at which we can ask them what they think the answers might be. This often means that instead of answering the same question for the tenth time in five minutes we ask Muffin, "What do you think the answer is?"
As it happens, "What do you think the answer is?" is a perfect entry point into talking about the world in more scientific terms. So, for instance, last weekend I told Muffin that I wanted to put her leftover watermelon from lunch into the refrigerator so she could eat it later.
"Why?" she asked, as usual.
"Because it will get yucky and you won't be able to eat it," I said.
"No it won't!" Muffin insisted.
Squeaker, meanwhile, came over to find out what Muffin and I were talking about.
Rather than arguing with a three-year-old, I took a different approach: "Let's do this," I said. "I'll put one piece in a zippy bag and we can leave it out, and we will see what happens."
Muffin agreed to this, so I took a small bag, wrote "Warning: Science in Progress" on it, and put a cube of watermelon in it. It has been sitting on our dining room table since, and Muffin looks at it regularly to see what has happened to the watermelon. Squeaker, realizing that Muffin had something going on with Mommy and wanting in on the action, asked me to put a bag with watermelon on the table for her, too. So we now have two parallel experiments going on, separated by approximately 24 hours.
But even before the start of Squeaker's watermelon experiment, she had kicked off a separate experiment. Muffin is quite fond of seltzer or, as we call it in our home, "fizzy water." Squeaker is much less enamored of it, because the bubbles tickle her nose. Last week, Muffin had abandoned a cup of seltzer on the table and had wandered off to play and was disappointed to find that it had lost its fizz. For Squeaker, however, fizzless fizzy water is the ideal. So we now also have a small cup of seltzer sitting out on our dining room table so that we can see how long it takes for it to lose its fizz.
I love that Muffin and Squeaker want to know how things work and that they have even a tiny budding interest in science. There has been much written regarding the myths and truths about girls' participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. In September 2011, the White House and the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced a plan to support new flexibility to allow scientists to maintain their career goals while starting families. One goal of this is to keep girls and women with an interest in science from feeling that they cannot advance in their fields if they wish to have children.
The NSF is also funding research to "understand and address gender-based differences in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and workforce participation through research, the diffusion of research-based innovations, and extension services in education that will lead to a larger and more diverse domestic science and engineering workforce."
It is my hope that by the time Muffin and Squeaker have to decide what they want to study in school there will be less of a gender bias in STEM fields. With famous role models such as Dr. Mayim Bialik (with a Ph.D. in neuroscience) and Danica McKellar (with a mathematical theorem partially named for her), it is easier to show girls that they can go far in any field.
This week’s column is written by Nomi S. Burstein.