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April 25, 2012

How Girls Can Become Better Scientists

Photo from Greenlightforgirls.org

“I used to have a lot of overdue fines at the library,” said Dr Kim Ennico, NASA scientist and astrophysicist who now plays with lots of cool space toys. “I was asking lots of questions and no one would answer so I retreated to books and read about everything. I wanted to learn how things worked and loved reading detective mystery stories.” I interviewed Kim Ennico in 2009 for an article on space museums and today, her words resonate even more then they did back then. Our whole discussion on how girls have to learn a healthy curiosity and skepticism to move forward as scientists was a revelation. As my girls grew from toddlers to preschoolers and preschoolers to school kids, I recycled many of her ideas and today I’ve come to appreciate their full meaning. Here’s my take on how you can encourage  little girls to be better scientists and challenge the gender stereotypes.

Sources

To get girls interested in science, Dr Ennico gave me advice based on her educational work with the Santa Clara school district. She used to teach science to girl scouts using girl-friendly examples such as an infrared beauty salon or a spectometer as a rainbow catcher.

Some of her ideas were re-inforced when I heard educator and psychologist JoAnn Deak talk about her book “Your Fantastic Elastic Brain: Stretch It, Shape It” in 2011. She talked about how girl brains and boy brains differ and discussed methods to help strengthen and improve areas of kids brains. I left with two copies of her book, have given it many times since, and apply her methods dutifully. I also use advice I heard at conferences on children’s books when people talked about math books for kids. last but not least, I’ve discussed this topic at length with friends and my dad who is a soil scientist.

Do’s and Don’ts to Raise Better Scientists – Especially If You Have Daughters

I would now like to share what I’ve learned because these tips really changed the way I interact with my girls on a daily basis. Note that this is not the Holy Gospel but a set of guidelines, often common sense, that works for my family.

1. Don’t Give The Answer Away Right Now

To promote self-learning, parents should encourage their kids to try and figure out the answer to any question rather than give the answer right away. In JoAnn Deak’s words, “when a student raises his or her hand in class, all the other kids stop thinking.” It’s true, we’ve all experienced that. When I was a kid, even if the kid who replied was wrong, I had stopped using my brain the second I saw a hand up in the air. By prolonging the thinking process, kids can stretch and strengthen their brains like body muscles.

As a mom eager to educate my girls, sometimes it’s hard to resist giving out the answer. Kids don’t think the way we do, sometimes they don’t get the answer right or they get distracted. Chill out, relax. As much as I can, I encourage them to think and figure out their own answer. Since we have a long commute to school, here’s an example taken from our car conversations.

When they ask me from the back seat, “Mom, does a piggie like to eat rice with bananas?” or “Mom, why do volcanoes have to erupt?”, I respond them “What do you think?”. If they need hints to steer in the right direction, I ask them questions that I know they can answer. “Where do pigs live?” “What other kinds of animals live with pigs and what do you think they eat?” “What’s at the center of the earth?” “What comes out of volcanoes?” “What happens if I leave milk on the stove?” and so forth so they can move forward.  I only want to be a tool in their reasoning process.

2. Do Teach Girls to Question Everything

I know I’m going to get in trouble for writing this. Yes, I am but that’s OK. Girls should never ever ever accept an “Because I say so” to any question, however complex or embarrassing. There are age-appropriate ways to talk about everything from the our digestive system to death, reproduction or the big bang theory. Kids have brains, they can process much more than we give them credit for. “Because I told you so” is not scientific. It’s not backed by any hard evidence. It’s just highly subjective and therefore potentially faulty. Kim Ennico called that “healthy skepticism” and I completely agree.

Whenever your daughter asks “Mom, Dad, why is ….?”, you just can’t answer “Because God made it” or “Because that’s the way it is.” That’s not helping, it’s a dead end.

If you don’t know the answer, be honest and offer to look up the answer later at home or at the library. Hey, nobody needs to know the answer to everything. I don’t know the first thing about submarines but I’m willing to take my girls on a tour of the USS Pompanito and get The First Book of Submarines at the library. That’s a start.

One last item, girl-specific. According to Kim Ennico “in mixed gender classes, it’s boys who ask more questions. Girls have to learn there’s nothing wrong about being curious.” What matters is that girls learn to not take everything for face value. If they do, it’s the end of her critical thinking and critical thinking is the key to learning.

3. Do Foster Persistence and Patience

Being obsessive pays off. In Kim Ennico’s words, “I kept my notes in order and I was stubborn.” As a little girl she was very shy yet she observed a caterpillar, wondered about it and went to the library to learn about it. Her approach was organized and she was never bored. I know that patience is a hard skill to learn for kids, especially nowadays when instant gratification is available at the tip of Amazon Prime or any Google research. My girls don’t like to wait but I teach them patience by giving them simple deadlines. “This weekend we are going on a long hike. After the hike you will be able to watch Superman.”  I could tell them to watch the movie now if I wanted to, we have the DVD and they’ve done their homework. However I prefer to delay the reward so they learn that patience pays off.

As for being organized, we’re still working on that but my girls now prepare their clothes for the next school day on the night before and they recently fell in love with check lists of things to do.

4. Teach That Failure Can Lead to Good Results

Kids, it’s OK to fail. It’s actually frequent and normal. If you never fail, it means you never tried. The history of science is full of examples of accidental discoveries. Play-Doh was accidentally invented in 1955 by Joseph and Noah McVicker while trying to make a wallpaper cleaner. Saccharin, the sweetener in the pink packet, was discovered because chemist Constantin Fahlberg didn’t wash his hands after a day at the office. Radioactivity was discovered by accident in 1896 when Becquerel, a scientist fascinated by natural fluorescence and the X-ray, left his equipment wrapped up together in a drawer and realized that the uranium rock he had left in the drawer had imprinted itself on a photographic plate without being exposed to sunlight first.

When my girls discover – by accident – that they can mix baking soda and vinegar to make volcanoes in the kitchen, I’ll probably curse this theory and teach them the magic of the floor mop:)

The Bottom Line

Girls can be great scientists if they are interested enough to pursue their passion. Go girls!

PS. You can read the article I initially did this research for on SFKids:

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4 Responses to “How Girls Can Become Better Scientists”

  1. May 13, 2012 at 11:03 am, Kimberly Ennico said:

    Dear Laure Latham, I just stumbled upon your article. Great to see what you have been up to and how you & your daughters (as you “all” grow) are embracing healthy skepticism and remaining curious about the world around you. Curiosity is such a wonderful gift, and it is so innately human. You are doing such a marvelous job at bringing topics down to earth. I thank you personally for your kind comments. I had no idea my words stuck & had relevance, and it makes me feel so wonderful to know. -Kim Ennico (on detail in Boulder, CO til 2014, miss the bay area, out here on assignment for NASA, working the Pluto Fly By Mission, which is based here).

    Reply

    • May 13, 2012 at 11:43 am, Frog Mom said:

      @Kim, it’s so nice to hear from you and I want to thank you again for your insights on becoming a scientist. I love what you do and you are an inspiration! I did send this piece to the NASA media office hoping they’d forward it to you but I think you beat them to it. Quite the detective! Hope Boulder is treating you well, they are lucky to have you. How exciting, the Pluto Fly By Mission. I’ll tell my girls, they’ll be thrilled. Thanks for the message! Laure

      Reply

  2. May 18, 2012 at 3:33 pm, Pam Hoffman said:

    Some of us got into science IN SPITE OF our upbringing. For me, the original Star Trek episodes were not just an escape. I lived in the future my whole life (sometimes I still do) – it’s finally catching up with me. :)

    Reply

    • May 22, 2012 at 12:49 pm, Frog Mom said:

      @Pam, I love what you say and that you got into into science despite your upbringing. How cool is that? I’d have to credit Star Wars and my brothers’ legos for getting me interested in anything futuristic. How are you involved in science?

      Reply

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