How can we cultivate girls’ interest in science and technology? A new book, Count Girls In: Empowering Girls to Combine Any Interests with STEM to Open Up a World of Opportunity, offers advice to families for raising “authentic young women who have the confidence to put STEM to work in the way that best serves them and their passions.”
The authors, Karen Panetta and Katianne Williams, are both professionals in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Panetta founded Nerd Girls, a group of women striving to break down stigmas that scare girls away from engineering, and Williams is an award-winning writer with a degree in computer engineering.
They write that even though today’s kids have access to a wide variety of STEM activities, there’s a huge opportunity gap that leaves out less affluent students, whose families can’t afford expensive courses and summer camps. This situation is compounded for girls.
“Little girls start out so full of spirit, joyously and chaotically marching to their own drums. They dance, they sing, they dress themselves in whatever smorgasbord of clothing makes them happy…They are interested in what everything is and how everything works,” they write.
But too often, this inquisitiveness and enthusiasm diminish over the years. “In the classroom, teachers see many girls begin to drift away from STEM subjects.” Later on, some girls just don’t feel smart enough, or they were told they weren’t capable of handling STEM coursework. They start believing that pursuing STEM careers will force them to “fit into a male world and play by male rules.”
The authors, through their work with Nerd Girls and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, have talked to women in STEM professions about what—or who—first got them interested. “Most credit a parent. Many others credit a teacher.”
Family members may not have had STEM careers themselves, but they still encouraged their daughters to explore. Teachers made science and math applicable to the real world instead of theoretical, often giving a particular push to girls.
There are many important reasons for girls to go after STEM careers. At the top of the list, of course, is that we all feel confident enough to pursue what we love. It’s also a fact that people with STEM degrees earn 26 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts. From “professional tribers,” who bring people together through digital platforms, to virtual reality designers, there are many different tracks to take.
Count Girls In provides tips for how families can encourage girls’ interest in STEM, such as being aware of their own gender bias, avoiding any suggestion that math skills are innate, looking for ways to combine their girls’ hobbies with STEM, and telling stories about women in STEM.
Panetta and Williams also make the connection between art and science—often thought of as polar opposites. Both are about open-ended inquiry, experimentation, and freedom of expression. And both can be messy.
Music is helpful because playing an instrument “can actually change your brain.”
“In playing the piano or another instrument, your daughter may not be thinking about numbers, but she is working with beat, rhythm, melody—all based on mathematical concepts, especially fractions,” Panetta and Williams write.
The authors also suggest introducing girls early to coding, which is simply about “developing computational thinking skills and learning logical thinking mainly through the creation of algorithms.” And you don’t need a computer to teach that. Have your would-be coder look at any activity sequentially—like making a fort out of cardboard boxes, or making a building from toothpicks and mini-marshmallows—and identify each decision she could make that would result in a different outcome.
“Essentially, students are learning to be more thoughtful and detailed in their communications. They are learning to slow down and think about all the logical steps and sequencing that has to happen for an action or activity to occur.”
Many organizations, including Girl Scouts of the USA, are working to connect girls with the wealth of opportunities in STEM fields and studies. The Girl Scouts recently announced its first national computer science program and Cyber Challenge for middle and high school girls. The Girl Scouts are partnering with Raytheon to expose girls to careers in cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, robotics, and data science.
All I know is: If, as the saying goes, “Women hold up half the sky,” yet comprise only about 20 percent of the degree recipients in engineering and computer science, something is not adding up. Luckily, that’s an algorithm we can change.