Raising STEM Girls Role Model-Free

Child wearing teal, long-sleeved shirt holding a small lizard in hand. Only the arms and hands are visible.
photo by Clint McKoy on Unsplash

T-shirt and shorts weather almost all year-round, green mountain trails, delicious pan-Pacific foods, vibrant ukulele and steel guitar tunes, and super nice people – I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else than Hawaii. However, expensive homes (the median price for a single-family home is $790,000, and $415,000 for a condominium) and lower salaries also drive locals away to colder, cheaper, less diverse states. We call it “brain drain.” I raised my daughters to enter nontraditional fields so they could continue living in Hawaii if they chose to.

At 14 and 17, the younger is likely to pursue auto or airplane mechanics while the older is hip-deep in computer languages and programming methodology. Neither my husband or I know a thing about these fields and the girls don’t know any women programmers or auto mechanics. None of our friends who work in STEM fields have STEM kids. The other STEM-oriented kids we know marinated in STEM activities for years: LEGO Robotics, Science Olympiad, NOAA summer workshops, university marine science summer programs, visiting an entomology professor, structural strength challenges (build a bridge with marshmallows and toothpicks), and drawing and reading about plants, animals, and insects. I will share what I did to get my girls to consider STEM careers role model-free.

First of all, STEM women are rare. If a girl doesn’t choose STEM, it’s because she doesn’t know what is involved or she is not interested. You shouldn’t force someone to be something they’re not.

STEM women, like female athletes, don’t need role models; they need challenges. Enjoying camaraderie is different from needing role models. So, where to begin? Start here:

Fertilize and Focus

  • A desire to solve puzzles
  • Curiosity about the world, how things work, and cause and effect
  • Ability to focus on things of interest
  • Willingness to try different things and solutions
  • Determination
  • Unafraid of failure
  • Hard-headedness – not easy to live with but there is a bright side: independent, creative thinking is like GOLD when applied to STEM.
Women rugby players. One woman is tackling another player holding the ball. One team wears dark blue, white, and light blue striped shirts. The other team wears red, white, and navy shirts.
photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Then, practice STEM thinking:

  • DO SPORTS. Sports builds grit, character, self-esteem, teamwork, and determination. Consider individual sports, e.g., rock climbing, mountain biking, dancing, or martial arts, if team sports are not for her.
  • Play strategy games
  • Encourage a love of learning – read, read, read, ask questions
  • Identify a need and find solutions
  • Seek STEM opportunities: classes, workshops, activities, talk to STEM professionals
  • Borrow STEM books: germs, animals, plants, planets, etc. I recommend David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work, The Way We Work, and his architecture series, including Cathedral, Castle, and Pyramid.
  • Classify objects
  • Draw diagrams
  • Ask questions
  • Conduct experiments (we’ve used family members as test subjects)
  • Build things
  • Compare things
  • Model curiosity and asking questions: “I wonder how…?” “What if…?”

Finally, the bigger picture:

  • Feed and support their intense curiosity.
  • Encourage them to seek out and support other knowledge spelunkers.
  • Emphasize greater economic freedom in STEM fields.
  • Strengthen their emotional and moral core then give them space to thrive. A strong sense of right and wrong will help them make the right decisions for our future.
  • CHALLENGE THEM. Instead of always encouraging and praising, try using failure or losing a game as a learning opportunity. Try “Huh. You sure screwed that up. What did you learn?” or “That didn’t go as planned. What will you try next time?” or “What went wrong?” Don’t make a big deal out of it; kids learn from their mistakes. Scientists learn from failure and luck. Anne of Green Gables happily made lots of different mistakes and Thomas Edison relentlessly collected light bulb failures. My future auto mechanic pointed out, “Babies learn to walk by falling down.”

STEM activities to do with kids:

Different leaves on a woodsy surface, probably a fallen tree.
photo by Ken Treloar on Unsplash

Gather different types of leaves on a nature walk. Lay them out at home. What do they have in common? What is different? Are different characteristics related to function or how much sun and water the plant needs? Draw each leaf. Look up what the parts are called and label them on the drawing. What category does each leaf fall into?

Learn about the things that build a better athlete: sleep, attitude, diet, technique, cross-training – sciency things that have visible results.

Try this experiment:

Does soccer practice feel better if you eat cookies and milk for a snack all week, ham or turkey sandwiches, peanut butter jelly sandwiches, or rotate all three different types of foods? Keep a log and record observations. Research effects of sugar, protein, and carbohydrates on muscle and energy levels.

Identify mentors and advisors

Instead of role models identify mentors and advisors – people from any background, ethnicity, or gender – who can share experiences and learning. Kids can ask:

  • What first interested you in this field?
  • What do you like most? Least?
  • Has your field changed a lot since you started? How do you think it will change in the future?

You don’t have to be a teacher or a STEM professional to encourage STEM thinking and a STEM attitude. STEM opportunities are all around us.

Remember, your job is to provide opportunities, create the setting, and model thinking and attitudes, but your kid has to take the next steps and STEM isn’t for everyone. That’s okay. Maybe the horse isn’t thirsty.

Featured photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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