Girls and science

Store2I teach middle school, and I’m looking for ways to interest girls in science. I seem to get a lot of “It’s too hard” and “I don’t like science.” What strategies could I use to overcome these attitudes? —C., Texas

It’s hard to believe we’re still having this conversation in 2016! And yet the NSTA discussion forums have ongoing threads such as Getting girls involved in science, Minority women in STEM, Encouraging girls into love of science, STEM for girls, and What a person in a STEM career needs.

Apparently this is still a relevant topic, as is encouraging minority students to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers. Our colleagues offer many suggestions in these threads.

A female math colleague and I had an interesting conversation on this. We are about the same age and grew up in a time when women were actively discouraged from studying advanced science and math. We compared our backgrounds to figure out how and why we managed to beat the odds. Our parents encouraged our interests. We both attended large state universities (she majored in math and minored in science; I majored in chemistry and took many math courses.) We both attended Catholic high schools…and then we had an “aha” moment. In both schools, all of our math and science teachers were women! And they were from the same order. These sisters encouraged all students to learn, but girls were not allowed to be spectators while the boys did the lab work. The girls were expected to achieve at high levels and be proud of their accomplishments. As my geometry teacher would say, “No cream puffs in this class!”

It seems for my colleague and me, having successful and intelligent women as role models was important, in addition to encouragement from our families. Students can find female role models and their contributions among your school’s graduates, in the media, and in the community.

But while having role models is important, it may not be enough to overcome stereotypes (males in lab coats, “mad” scientists) and misconceptions (math is too hard, women may study biology but not engineering or the physical sciences). Here are some popular suggestions from the discussion forums, with the idea that it’s never too early to start helping students discover and develop their interests:

  • Choose activities that encourage exploration and creativity with support for students who are apprehensive about getting a “correct” answer.
  • Avoid gender stereotypes and assign group roles randomly, ensuring girls get equitable opportunities to lead.
  • Use a variety of activities, including hands-on and technology-based. Allow students to chose activities or require all students to participate in everything, rather than assigning activities by gender (e.g., blocks to boys, coloring to girls).
  • Call on girls equitably in class.
  • Assume all students will be successful and build confidence with positive and constructive feedback.
  • Be aware of specific student interests and show how those topics relate to the real world.
  • Use photographs or graphics in class materials that include female scientists and engineers.

Having mentors can be helpful, too. A few years ago, a female student in my school wanted to take calculus, but her father tried to talk her out of it, saying it was “too hard” for girls. She asked me what to do. I didn’t want to disrespect her father, but I knew that she was totally capable. I mentioned I had taken quite a few calculus courses in high school and college, as had the other female math and science teachers, and we managed to survive! I said if she decided to take the course, my colleagues and I would help her if she needed it. She took the course, never needed our tutoring offer, and aced the course. She now works in the financial department of an international business.

Teachers can benefit from female role models and mentors, too. I facilitated a professional development course in environmental science in which the instructor was a female entomologist. She shared her passion and her current research on endangered butterfly species. It was interesting to watch the mostly female teachers in the class hang on her every word, and by the end of the course they were eager to incorporate the study of insects into their classes.


On the next page, two women share their reflections on what or who encouraged their interests.

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