Three Ways to Engage Young Girls in Science
From the perspective of a former high school science teacher.
By Kayla DeMuth, Academic Designer
“Have you tried letting them use pink Barbie cars in class?”
This was real, genuine advice I was given as a second-year teacher by a male supervisor. I went to him for suggestions on how to better engage two struggling students in my physical science class. No matter how many conversations I had with them about the importance of building a good scientific knowledge base for future science courses, or, in general, just how beneficial not failing a class is, I couldn’t win. So, I went to him for advice about these students, who happened to be girls. He also suggested allowing them to focus on makeup for their chemistry project, believing that because they were girls, their interests would be piqued by glittery topics. I had never even considered their gender, or contemplated treating them differently because they were female. At the time, I remember just laughing through my confusion. Personally, I was very much interested in science, despite no pink equipment or mascara in the lab.
Looking back, I realize this interaction with him spoke to a deep-rooted fundamental belief that girls just don’t like science as much as boys.
My supervisor’s advice was just a manifestation of one of a few different misconceptions that people hold about why girls are underrepresented in science. One long-held idea is that biologically, boys are better at processing math and science than girls are. This idea was recently laid to rest, once and for all, through research led by a female scientist. Misconceptions like these remain thanks to the persistent impression that girls aren’t interested in science classes and, thus, fewer women become scientists. Many well-intentioned people are trying to correct this perceived shortage of women scientists, that honestly, I didn’t really see as a problem from my own experiences. But in fact, it is a problem and there may be a clear answer for how to address this — not in the biology of a girl’s brain or the color of the lab equipment, but in how we teach girls to do (or avoid) the thing that science requires: failure.
A Shortage of Female Scientists
I never really felt a deficit of women in science fields. I pursued a bachelor’s degree in microbiology thanks to an interesting high school biotechnology course, which was mostly made up of girls. While working toward my degree, there were always girls to study with. Then, I went into teaching high school science where half my colleagues in the science department were women. So, I couldn’t help but wonder: is the gap in numbers of females versus males in science really that big? I went searching for data. According to the National Science Foundation: “Of all science and engineering degrees awarded in 2016, women earned about half of bachelor’s degrees, 44% of master’s degrees, and 41% of doctorate degrees.”
At first glance, these statistics don’t indicate a deficit. Interestingly, however, while about half of women are getting bachelor’s degrees in science, the bulk of that percentage comes from the areas of psychology, the biological sciences and the social sciences. Further, in looking at employment data, only 15 percent of working women are employed in science and engineering occupations. Meanwhile, 34 percent of working men are.
So, there is a bigger deficit in the numbers than I thought, and there are many people who attribute this to the misconception that women just aren’t as interested in or as good at science as men. So, why does this deficit exist, and what can we do to help destroy this mindset and ensure that women are better represented in science fields?
Fear of Failure
The deficit of women working in science may go all the way back to the cultural tendencies in how girls are raised versus boys. Girls are generally taught to avoid failure and yet, failure is practically a requirement to be successful in science. One of my favorite books that I have read this year is Brave, Not Perfect by Reshma Saujani. In her book, she details our culture’s expectations surrounding different genders. These expectations, in turn, lead to very different approaches in raising girls and boys. Here is one quote from the book that I think sums it up nicely:
“As girls, we’re taught from a very young age to play it safe. To strive to get all A’s to please our parents and teachers. To be careful not to climb too high on the jungle gym so we don’t fall and get hurt. To sit quietly and obediently, to look pretty, to be agreeable so we will be liked. Well-meaning parents and teachers guide us toward activities we excel at so we can shine, and they steer us away from the ones we aren’t naturally good at to spare our feelings and grade point averages…. Boys on the other hand, absorb a very different message. They are taught to explore, play rough, swing high, climb to the top of the monkey bars — and fall down trying.” — Reshmua Saujani, “Brave, Not Perfect”
Science is a field in which risk, exploration, and failure are par for the course and boys tend to get way more practice in these areas starting at a much younger age. Huge cultural shifts in child rearing may take a long time, but here are some practical ideas for teachers to consider:
Giving students space to explore without looking for correct answers, and where failure is impossible, would be beneficial for all students, but especially girls. This could simply be playing around with different equipment before a lab or exploring their own questions about phenomena they have encountered.
When students have questions, try turning the question back on them and probe for their own ideas for why things happen. Even if the answers that students give are off base, be encouraging and suggest that they find out the answers for themselves. If possible, have students come up with their own experiments to figure out the answers to their questions.
This one was hard because as a teacher who hands out grades, how can you tell a student that failing is okay? I think the key here is to impart onto students that learning from your failure is the ultimate goal. When “failure” gives you knowledge, that’s when you’re closer to success. One really helpful way to show that failure is okay is to share stories of very successful people who “failed,” but ultimately were better because of it.
Those girls in my physical science class, and many like them, were disengaged in the class, not because of the color of the lab equipment, but because they were afraid to try something at which they might not succeed. They had been taught to fear failure. In reality, girls are just as interested/talented in science and math as boys. We just need to be aware of our cultural pressures and tendencies to protect girls from failure and work against them to ensure girls see science and engineering fields as legitimate options.
Kayla Demuth has been with McGraw-Hill for one year as an Academic Designer for the middle school science programs. She comes from the high school classroom where she taught physical science and biology. Her time as an educator helped spark a passion in helping students realize their value and become the best versions of themselves. She now takes this passion and applies it to her current role by getting involved in research and training surrounding social emotional learning. Outside her job, she enjoys visiting new coffee shops and hanging out with her husband and one-year-old daughter.