“Where are the girls?”
It was my sixth year teaching high school biology. During a crazier than normal week I changed my lesson plan in order to add some new content to my unit on the evolution of birds. I discovered a NOVA special about a team of engineers who were trying to reconstruct an extinct dinosaur thought to be an early ancestor of birds. Based on the credibility of the program I showed a piece of it in class before watching it first. The program content was fine, but I cringed when I realized that none of the 20 or so engineers on the team were female. I held my breath and hoped no one would notice.
One of my brightest female students who usually quietly raised her hand, blurted out in a frustrated voice, “Where are the girls?”
I always tried to avoid this situation. Early on in my teaching I was told in my science education courses to use gender-neutral language as much as possible. I should try to show examples of female scientists as much as possible. The very fact that I was first trained as a zoologist before becoming a teacher might make my female students more interested in science, so I should mention that as much as possible. Of course, I was no longer a practicing scientist, but that didn’t seem to matter.
I tried to put a positive spin on the situation. “Well, there are currently more men in engineering than women. However, that means the possibilities for scholarships for women who want to enter into this type of career are great. If you are interested in this type of career, don’t be dismayed by the lack of women currently in the profession. Even now, that is changing.”
My student seemed to only be somewhat satisfied by my answer and I wondered if I had even been accurate in my response. During a recent experience at a workshop at Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy I only encountered one woman working at the facility the entire week I was there. How do I put a positive spin on that? Besides, most of her dissatisfaction with my answer probably stemmed from a concern as to why women weren’t in this particular video which was created in 2008.
While I no longer teach biology, I teach Middle School robotics and computer skills at an all-girls school where I have plenty of opportunities to encourage young women into science. Teaching in an all-girl environment has its limitations, but when it comes to getting students interested in science it definitely broadens the possibilities. My robotics students don’t let the boys engineer the robots because there are no boys. While it’s wonderful to see their achievements in the classroom, I still struggle with how to get them to go from being interested in science to actually pursuing it as a career.
What does it take to get a young woman interested in pursuing a science career? I’ve had a fair amount of success through the use of blogs in the classroom. Female students are captivated by the focus on communication skills and story-telling that blogging requires. It also allows them to show off their strengths to their peers and it satisfies their desires to be liked and appreciated, and feel part of the greater community. Publishing their work on the internet is a powerful motivator for my female students. They are addicted to social media and love using sites like Tumblr and Facebook to share their blog posts. In the short-term, they are captivated by the positive attention and affirmations they receive from the internet audience. In the long-term, they begin to think more seriously about pursuing science-related careers.
Five years ago I started a class blog, Extreme Biology, that quickly became very popular among the students and even the science community. Both male and female students enjoyed using the blog, but my female students started to participate more frequently in after-school field trips, clubs, and other extracurricular opportunities when blogging about their experience became an option. A true measure of the blog’s success has been the number of my students who have continued to blog about science even after they have left my class and there is no longer a grade incentive to blog.
For example, I’m extremely pleased that three of my former female biology students now blog at Scitable, the education division of Nature. These three students are only in their sophomore year of high school, yet they already have an amazing platform in which to develop their science skills. Samantha blogs about conservation issues at Green Science, Sabrina blogs about medical issues at MedSci Discoveries, and Naseem blogs about science issues that kids can relate to in their everyday life at Our Science. While Naseem doesn’t blog often, she loves to interview other young science bloggers and tweet about them with the username @youngsciblogs. It will be interesting to see what careers these female students ultimately choose. Will they choose science?
Because I think blogging has truly revolutionized my classroom (and many others), I’m currently organizing a teen blogging conference, Science Online for Teens (#sciojr), that will be held on a Saturday in April, 2013 at my current school, Convent of the Sacred Heart. Along with my co-organizer, Summer Ash, and a planning committee that includes students, educators, and scientists, I hope to make this event transformative for science education. Middle & Upper school students from public and private schools will accompany their teachers and attend workshops led by their peers, science writers, bloggers, journalists, artists, filmmakers, web developers, and scientists.
While this conference is gender neutral, I hope to have at least one session that tackles the difficulties that women face when choosing a career in science. I hope that by meeting successful women in science at the conference, many of the female attendees will come away with greater confidence in choosing a career in science. Some of them may even become engineers, work at Carnegie Mellon, and end up on a NOVA program engineering the reconstruction of an extinct bird.
About the author:
Stacy Baker is a Middle School Technology Integrationist at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. She is a former High School Biology teacher. She has a BS in Zoology from Washington State University. Her twitter handle is @stacycbaker. Information about the Science Online for Teens conference can be found by contacting Stacy at firstname.lastname@example.org and by following the conference hashtag #sciojr on Twitter.