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Getting Girls Interested in Science

Forget the notion that girls just aren't that naturally interested in STEM. Turns out our culture might be turning them off before they even get a chance to understand and enjoy scientific subjects.

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Jacobs sees a tendency to assign kids a label early on – the girl who loves playing her violin will be a musician, the boy who won't put down his baseball mitt a future athlete. There's nothing wrong with encouraging those interests, she says, as long as kids aren't getting the message that it means they won't be good at other things.

"Every single industry needs all kinds of talent," Jacobs says, so it's important for parents and teachers to encourage girls to explore how their talents can be applied in different fields.

"Instead of trying to tell everyone that they should be interested in becoming an engineer or scientist, which not everyone's going to want to do, I think it's more important to meet kids at their own level of interest," Jacobs says. "Whatever they're interested in, science and technology is a part of it."

Changing the status quo may take redesigning education – not necessarily to be more "girl friendly," but more geared to reach each student on her – or his – own level.

An individualized approach

At Berkshire Middle School, located in Beverly Hills in the Birmingham Public Schools district, educators approach science education with each student's individual needs in mind, says principal Jason Clinkscale. Instead of creating a one-size-fits-all approach, they try to reach each student on a level they can relate to.

"That's what it's always about, is trying to find a way to tap into the individualized needs of the student," Clinkscale says.

That can mean mixing up the classroom routine by bringing in an outside program, or infusing art classes with technology like graphic design software and digital photography. The goal is to get students thinking about science in a way they might have not considered otherwise.

The school is seeing positive results reflected in its test scores, Clinkscale says.

It's important to give girls and other minority groups opportunities to explore STEM-related activities in an environment where they won't feel singled out, Clinkscale says. For girls, that means creating an environment not dominated by males. Clubs, special classes and other activities – either through a girl's school or in the community – can be an avenue to finding like-minded peers and forming those essential connections.

Lawrence Technological University in Southfield offers a selection of week-long summer camps for grades K-12 – some just for girls – designed to provide mentoring and exploration opportunities for students interested in science. For the kid who thinks she might be interested in, for example, biomedical engineering, the camps provide an environment to explore opportunities within the field and build a sense of "I can do this," says Lisa Kujawa, assistant provost for enrollment management at LTU.

"When you throw students directly into a class – when they really might not have had the preparation, or no one has explore-d the opportunities with them that might be there in the field – they're clueless," Kujawa says. "And when you're young, sometimes you just don't really know."

These kinds of hands-on experiences – summer camps, clubs and others – can help girls approach regular science classes with more confidence, ready to build on that knowledge, Kujawa says. And it's important to get groups of girls working on things together, Jacobs adds, because spreading the word that way is much easier than one girl coming back from a class with all boys and trying to explain to her friends why it's fun.

"It's very hard to be the only person doing something," Jacobs says. "There's sort of a social isolation that goes along with it, because the balance isn't there. So unless you're willing to say, 'I'm willing to spend a lot of time doing something where I'm going to be a minority,' it's a very hard path right now for girls."

Science at home

Parents are uniquely equipped to make science accessible for girls, because parents know their child's interests better than any school, Jacobs says. Girls may discover something they had never considered when encouraged to explore their interests through the lens of science and technology.

Parents can help girls see that science can be fun – yes, FUN – and doesn't mean giving up the things she loves. Whatever her interests – whether she likes art and creativity, sports and competition, or math and problem-solving – she can apply those strengths to a variety of subjects.

It's important for parents and teachers to remind kids that "if there's something that they love, they will find a way to make whatever their natural talents are fit into that world," Jacobs says.

Traditionally, following a path in STEM hasn't been easy for girls and women. The good news is that the climate is changing. And today, girls in those fields may actually have an edge when it comes to college scholarships and the job market because of the eagerness to change the status quo.

Improving girls' confidence in their own abilities – by fighting stereotypes and reaching them on an individual level – can help to cultivate a generation of capable, enthusiastic women scientists that is long overdue.

Tips for parents

Understand that girls do learn differently from boys; your child may respond best to a verbal approach, for example.

Provide the tools for education, whether that be a science-related toy, access to educational software or a family trip to the local museum.

Look for clubs, special classes and other activities available through your child's school or in the community.

Help your child find a scientific role model or mentor – or, if you work in a science-related industry, take your child to work with you.

Find examples of science and technology in a subject your child enjoys and share that knowledge with your girl. (Science is everywhere – in cooking, household electronics, a visit to the doctor, the car in the driveway.)

Encourage a mindset of potential growth – that skill in any subject will increase with further study and experience.

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