From the January 2016 issue

Tips for Raising Science-Savvy Girls

From toys to activities, there are many ways that parents can naturally spike their daughter's science interest. Here, Stacy Rivard, Head of Cranbrook Middle School for Girls, shares her top tips.

Raising science-minded girls is top of mind for many parents, who likely are hearing a lot of buzz around the need for women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. It’s also top of mind for Stacy Rivard, head of the Cranbrook Kingswood Middle School for Girls, who oversees the tutelage of the school’s 178 sixth, seventh and eighth grade students.

Rivard encourages parents to light a spark of science interest in their daughters by first exposing them to strong female role models in science and engineering.

“Introduce your daughter to Sally Ride or other important inventors,” Rivard suggests.

This exposure to female scientists and inventors can happen through books, classroom learning or intentional efforts like taking young girls to museums early and often, she maintains.

“In particular, visit science and industry museums with your daughter,” she suggests. “They have many hands-on activities that young kids enjoy and that will engage them.”

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Locally, the Michigan Science Center and the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum are popular attractions for children as is Cranbrook’s own Institute of Science, which includes a permanent collection of scientific artifacts, a planetarium and an observatory.

Rivard notes that many museums are working diligently to attract young girls through the development of exhibits that may appeal to girls in particular. She counts Cranbrook’s own Institute of Science among them.

“Many girls are particularly interested in the minerals and gemstones that are part of a permanent collection at the Cranbrook Institute of Science,” Rivard notes. “Observing these interesting minerals and gems up close, some of which glow in the dark, exposes young children to geology in a compelling way.”

Even shopping provides an opportunity for parents to introduce their daughter to STEM-related experiences. Rivard counsels parents to avoid the aisles full of pink and purple toys and, instead, to opt for aisles with toys that encourage girls to put things together.

“Buy construction toys,” she urges. “Girls are not given opportunities in play to tinker and build like boys are. This puts them at a disadvantage in learning what we call spatial awareness skills.”

These skills help an individual perceive in 3-D, important in engineering and architectural fields in particular, she notes.

“Puzzles, games, construction and problem-solving activities all help with building those spatial awareness skills,” she notes.

It’s an exposure the Cranbrook Kingswood Middle School for Girls is making sure its own students receive often. Rivard is excited about the opportunity the school’s seventh graders have to visit the Cranbrook Art Museum and view its furniture collection. Later, the students will sculpt their own piece of furniture out of cardboard. Next, they will program a 3-D model of their design and, finally, print their scaled piece of furniture.

During the school’s annual Math Physics Olympics, eighth grade students put their problem-solving acumen to work constructing catapults, building paper towers that can hold designated weight, and taking on other physics-focused endeavors.

“Over two months, our students prepare for this incredibly awesome event,” she says. “The experience takes what they’re learning in the classroom and allows them to apply it. It’s a high point for our students who observe and anticipate it first as sixth and seventh graders.”

Students at the Middle School for Girls are also able to take advantage of the Cranbrook Educational Community’s sprawling grounds to see science in motion.

“We’re so fortunate to have these grounds and museums,” Rivard says. “Our sixth graders study habitats and observe bogs, gardens and forests in real-time right on campus throughout the year.”

While the school’s campus provides unique learning opportunities vis-à-vis the museum and the school’s vast grounds, some of the richest learning happens right inside the classroom.

“Our seventh graders study geology, and our science museum curators will bring some of the gem and mineral samples right to the classroom for them to see,” she says. “Likewise, when our sixth graders study tropical forests, we’ll bring in bats from the museum’s Bat Zone, so the girls can see examples of tropical bats up close.”

Rivard notes that gift-giving occasions like birthdays provide yet another opportunity to expose girls to science.

“There are so many science kits out there on the market,” Rivard notes. “The Discovery Channel even offers its own line of toys with a science bent. Consider giving a gift like this to the young girls in your life.”

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