There’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes by policy makers and educators to remove barriers and encourage women to work and study in STEM fields ― which is fantastic ― but it needs to start much earlier than adulthood. To encourage STEM learning for young girls, there are lots of things you can do at home. Here are some ideas.
School field trips can be important moments in learning. But going on a field trip with a parent is even more beneficial because it enables your daughter to explore new things with the person she loves and trusts the most.
With your daughter, pick a facility near your home (e.g., science discovery museum, technology museum, aquarium, etc.) that interests her. Visit regularly. Returning to the same facility, or the same type of facility in another location, is more effective than just going once to a lot of different types of facilities.
On the first visit, kids are usually pre-occupied with taking in all there is to see, and of course, all there is to buy. With the second, third, and fourth visit however, they get a chance to focus-in on the aspects that really interest them. They start to expand their vocabulary, ask deeper questions, get a chance to interact with the staff members, and (hopefully) develop lasting fascinations.
Again, so your daughter can learn with someone she loves and trusts, it’s so important to consistently relate everyday events to STEM subjects. Bring ideas to light that relate to her STEM passion (without being too obvious about it).
For example, if she likes to cook, you could talk about recipe measurements and/or scientific food reactions. If she loves gardening, plant a garden together and talk about soil nutrients and weather conditions. Or if she likes to help people with disabilities, you could talk about 3D printing and artificial limbs.
All you need to do is Google the word for her passion followed by ‘STEM’ (e.g., ‘ballet STEM’) and spend a few minutes reading and clicking to find an activity that you think will capture her interest.
Problem-solving at Home
In all STEM subjects, discovering that something doesn’t work is just as important as discovering a new way to make it work. This problem/solution attitude can be developed at home.
For example, suppose your daughter doesn’t consider herself a good bike rider. The next time she complains about her inability, encourage her to use the word ‘yet’ at the end of her sentence.
Explain to her that everything takes practice; no one is instantly good at anything. Tell her if she keeps practicing riding her bike, even if it feels frustrating and pointless at first, she’ll eventually develop the skills needed to get better. Praise effort over results. Tell her to keep at it.
Help her make the mental connection between her bike-riding practice and the importance of finding better solutions―persisting, tweaking assumptions, adjusting actions, and discovering new and improved results―STEM in action.
If you can do this, not only have you highlighted the STEM method of viewing challenges as opportunity, you have also taught her a crucial life lesson about the importance of persistence and learning from mistakes.
Gender-neutral Home Environment
To help avoid the ‘leaky pipeline’ where girls lose interest in STEM subjects, create a gender-neutral home environment.
Toys: Your daughter might consider herself too old for toys, but as parents, we know that toys are still toys even if the pretend purses and big wheels have morphed into backpacks and bicycles.
In addition to ‘traditional’ toys for girls, she needs exposure to gender-neutral toys (e.g. LEGOs, science kits, 3D puzzles, etc) to develop her spatial skills.
Books: Fill a bookshelf with age-appropriate non-fiction books. Include reference books on whatever topic(s) she’s interested in, as well as topics she might not have discovered yet. It’s handy to have these books available for that fleeting moment when her interest is piqued.
Let her ‘discover’ these books on her own after you point her to the bookshelf.
Project space: Create a STEM-friendly project space in your home that’s all hers. Even if your daughter has her own room, she needs a STEM project space to call her own.
Situate her space in a common area so the entire family knows that her work is an integral and important part of the household. Note: For safety reasons, make sure her space is within earshot of a responsible adult.
Finally, try to keep in mind that middle school is when girls usually lose interest in STEM. Anything you can do at home to boost your daughter’s interest now will help her immensely.
Trish Allison is the founder and writer of P.I.N.K. Backpack gender-equality guidebooks for parents. Visit her website at http://www.pink-backpack.com.