Why girls need STEM and why STEM needs girls

STEM: Science, technology, engineering and math are the future, and your daughter’s going to want to be a part of it. Here’s how.

Photo: Tony Lanz Illustration: Nicole Chung

We spend a lot of time in our house talking to my nine-year-old stepdaughter about Grown-Up Career Options. “You could be an engineer!” we say. “And make cool things and help people! You could be a coder and make websites for awesome causes. You can be a scientist, a math teacher—you can be anything you want.”

We imagine life as it will be 15 years from now, and with all the uncertainty, one thing is abundantly clear: A career in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) offers so much for our girls; opportunity, the chance to shape our world and job stability in an increasingly tech-focused marketplace.

“Things are changing so quickly. Ten years from now, everything from making coffee to counting money will be done by machines and computers,” says Ksenia Nadkina, the Calgary Chapter Lead STEM educator of Girls Learning Code, a not-for-profit organization that runs female-friendly workshops and courses across Canada in everything from HTML and CSS to 3D printing and robotics. “Jobs like barista and teller will be obsolete,” she says. “Why not prepare girls for the future?”

There’s a massive gender imbalance that persists in STEM-related fields. While determining exact cross-industry percentages is tricky, the number of women in these jobs generally hovers between 10 and 30 percent, even though having women involved offers so much to the world. If half of the population isn’t contributing to the best ideas, they’re not, in fact, the best ideas. Without female inventors, we wouldn’t have windshield wipers, coffee filters and disposable diapers. Recent innovations that have come from girls and women include a smartphone attachment that lets parents diagnose ear infections, and a water-purification system that uses an inexpensive photo catalyst and sunlight to produce clean drinking water.

We asked some pros and moms of science-minded girls to weigh in on what we can all be doing to make our homes and family lives more STEM-friendly. Here’s what they said.

Watch your words
Consider how you speak differently to your sons and daughters, says Saadia Muzaffar, the founder of TechGirls Canada, an organization that examines ways to address the barriers to diversity and equity in the technology sector. “Often, when kids make the exact same project, they will get different responses. A girl might get, ‘Oh, you’re so crafty!’ while a boy will hear, ‘You should be an engineer.’”

Likewise, when watching TV or movies, start pointing out inequality: Isn’t it weird that the guys are usually the ones driving the spaceship? “You’re teaching boys and girls to develop their critical-thinking skills around gender stereotyping.”

Zakia Ahmad, a mom of two girls who works in chemical engineering, agrees. “Any time there is a woman doing something amazing on the news, I’ll call them in and say, ‘I want you to see what this woman is doing.’”

Treat the World as Your Laboratory
From the time her 13-year-old daughter, Emily, was little, Kristin MacDonnell has operated under one central parenting theory: “Whenever she approached me with an idea, I was always open to it.” For the past four years, for example, MacDonnell has had larvae shipped to her house so she and Emily could raise butterflies through their different stages (and then let them loose). Her science-focused kid has always been inquisitive, and MacDonnell says she just had to keep up.

One tip for parents looking to broaden their kids’ interest in the sciences? Mix it up with fun stuff, says MacDonnell. “Every time we plan a trip, I make sure there’s an educational component to it. I plan stops that will be learning experiences, like the aquarium or a museum or factory tour. I can’t believe how much I’m learning in the process.”

Ahmad employs a similar daily-life-as-learning strategy. Ever since her daughters were tiny, she would point things out to them: “‘Look at the clouds!’ I’d say,” she remembers. “Let’s check out how those are made.”

Teach a Girl to Fish
“Encourage problem solving and teach resourcefulness,” says Laura Plant, the co-founder and co-executive director of Ladies Learning Code. Rather than providing the answers to their questions, work with your children to use technology to research information and come up with solutions themselves. “Show enthusiasm for your kids’ ideas; set up a place for building and prototyping, and stock this space with materials and tools that will inspire and empower your kids to bring their ideas to reality.”

How to make coding cool
“Computers scared me as a girl,” says Laura Plant. “I really avoided them. I never even considered taking computer class. I remember peeking into the lab once and seeing 15 boys. I thought it was boring and grey.”

Now Plant is the co-executive director of Ladies Learning Code (LLC). “Women and girls make up more than half of all tech consumers,” she says. “We want the developers of tech to reflect that.”

But if you’re looking to get your daughter prepared for her future, Plant says, coding is the language we’ll all need to survive in our increasingly tech-centric world. “There’s such a gap in curricula that parents and teachers are just starting to realize exists.”

At the week-long LLC camps, girls brainstorm a problem they want to provide solutions for: a charity that’s not getting enough coverage, or a company that wants to make mounds of money or expand. The week is then spent using technology to further those goals. “We visit tech companies and build websites—I have girls coming back and saying they’ve built websites for school projects. But our camps aren’t just about sitting in front of a computer all day.” Less than half of the time is spent looking at a computer screen; LLC focuses on teaching skills in a variety of ways, including games, crafts, field trips and brainstorming. “We show them what a great, cool industry it is and what a creative, exciting career they can have.” For tech-phobic moms and dads who also want to learn alongside their girls, there are parent-child workshops.

“We love seeing girls and women becoming creators, not just consumers,” says Plant.

What is “code”?
It may seem daunting, but it’s actually pretty simple: Code is the language used to communicate with computers. “Think of it like English or French or Spanish,” says Ksenia Nadkina of Girls Learning Code.. “Just as there are many human languages, there are many
languages spoken by computers—JavaScript, HTML, PHP. Some are better for creating software, some are used for websites, others for apps.” Now you know!

A version of this article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue with the headline, “Why girls need STEM and why STEM needs girls”, p.43.

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