How to engage girls in science, technology, engineering & math

Author Ann Gadzikowski recently shared her perspective on girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, & math) with the attendees of the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children conference in Denmark. We are excited to continue our STEM series with a snippet of her talk and some thoughts on getting girls active in STEM early and keeping them interested long-term.

If you have ideas and strategies for girl powered STEM please share them in the comments!

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Girl Power STEM: Engaging Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering & Math 

I just returned from Denmark, the home of LEGO® toys, where I attended an international educators’ conference and spoke about the importance of engaging girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in early childhood. Many of the ideas I presented are also included in my new Redleaf Press book, Creating a Beautiful Mess: Ten Essential Play Experiences for a Joyous Childhood. In fact, the first chapter of the book is devoted to block and construction play, an essential experience for the early development of STEM skills and knowledge.

In many early childhood classrooms the block area is perceived to be the domain of boys only. Girls often need extra encouragement from teachers and parents to engage in block play. The experience of young girls in the block corner is similar to what many female students experience in STEM classrooms. Unfortunately, many girls and young women with an early interest or ability in science, technology, engineering and math do not continue studying these subjects at advanced levels. According to the American Association of University Women: “At almost every step of the STEM education ladder, we see girls walk away. By seventh grade, most girls have lost interest in these fields, and few high school girls plan to pursue STEM in college.” (AAUW, Spring 2010)

Block play

Promoting block play for girls can be a great start for creating future interest in STEM fields. Photo: Ann Gadzikowski

If we’re going to reach girls before they turn away from STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) it’s clear we need to start young — in early childhood and the primary grades. Girls need support and encouragement to develop the skills, knowledge and confidence that will lead to success in STEM classrooms and careers. This was my primary message last week in Denmark. The conference I attended was the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children and my session was titled “Girl Power STEM: Engaging Bright Female Students in Science, Technology, Engineering & Math in Early Childhood Classrooms.”

One strategy I suggest is using open-ended construction toys to challenge and inspire girls to experiment and innovate. Parents and teachers must take an active role in encouraging girls to build with toys that develop children’s understanding of engineering, geometry, physics and math. In addition to wooden unit blocks, one of the most versatile and open-ended construction toys, girls can be encouraged to build with toys like Magnatiles or Straws & Connectors, as well as household objects like cardboard boxes and plastic bins. (In fact, the excitement and satisfaction of building your own contraption is expressed in my new picture book, to be published by Redleaf Press in 2016. The working title is “Mimi at the Wheel” and the book tells the story of one little girl and her intense curiosity about how a steering wheel works.)

One of the most popular construction toys today are LEGOs, a toy invented in Denmark. Before traveling to Denmark to talk about girls and STEM, I looked into the history of LEGO toys. I learned that the original vision for this Danish toy company included a commitment to “quality in every detail,” “unlimited play potential,” and play opportunities “for girls and for boys.” There was a time in the 1970’s and 1980’s when girls and boys were featured equally in LEGO marketing, back in the days when LEGO bricks came in bright primary colors. But in the 1990’s LEGO began manufacturing toys sets based on mass media franchises, such as Star Wars and Bionicle, that were more appealing to boys than girls. According to National Public Radio, by 2011, 90% of LEGO consumers were boys.

In recent years LEGO has made an effort to draw more girls into LEGO play. In 2012 LEGO launched a product line called “LEGO Friends.” This toy line features a posse of girl dolls in pastel ruffled skirts. The play sets include a hair salon, a shopping mall, a beach house and a juice bar. The LEGO Friends toys have been widely criticized in the media for perpetuating gender stereotypes but they have sold well.

Regardless of the criticisms of LEGO Friends, I still believe that LEGO bricks offer terrific opportunities for children to develop engineering and geometry skills. I hope that LEGO Friends serves as a gateway toy that draws girls to try other kinds of LEGOs and other kinds of construction toys. I believe teachers and parents should provide girls with a variety of opportunities with a wide range of construction toys. Overall, I was encouraged by my experience discussing girls and STEM at the WCGTC conference in Denmark because I met educators from all over the world who are interested in developing more opportunities for girls to explore and achieve in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.


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