What do a paleontologist, chemist and astronomer have in common? In the case of a Lego set called Research Institute, it’s the fact that they’re all women. They aren’t wearing short skirts or all-pink clothing. They have the professional appearance and tools of their trade, or they will when Lego makes more of them – they sold out the first day they went on sale. The trio shouldn’t be remarkable in toys or real life because women are no longer required to quit their jobs when they get married and other such sexist business practices are illegal. And yet women are still under represented in science technology, engineering and Math (STEM) fields. This annoys Ann McMahon, who has dedicated her career to inspiring and supporting women in the sciences.
As vice president of science and education with the Pacific Science Center and a former rocket scientist, McMahon believes improving science education is the best way to change that. By focusing on the social and emotional aspects of learning that engage girls, all kids will benefit. She sees her position at the Science Center as a means to further her life-long mission to bring people, especially girls and women, into the magical world of science.
“I’m not interested in being involved in projects that say, ‘We’re going to give girls pink hard hats and cute laces for their boots and a tool belt and call that an intervention or engagement.’ I’m interested in providing experiences that engage girls intellectually, socially and emotionally,” says McMahon. “All three have to be done in a very purposeful way in order to really move the needle on girls’ engagement in STEM.
“Nobody ever became a scientist or engineer because they liked doing worksheets. They become scientists and engineers because they’re engaged with what things are and how things work. We need to foster not just intellectual engagement but an emotional engagement with the natural and human-made world in girls. And what’s good for the girls is good for everybody.”
A sense of wonder
Instead of focusing on the dearth of women in the STEM fields and the detrimental impact this will have on employment figures and innovation, McMahon is focused on expanding the education mindset. The fact that girls lose interest in science in the fifth and sixth grade is the result of limiting the way they are taught, she says.
The explosion of summer camps designed to engage girls in computer science, robotics and other STEM subjects are frequently touted as the way to increase the number of women. But McMahon wants people to go deeper than the hype, to look at how science programs are reaching kids. The long-term change needed will only occur when the focus on STEM expands beyond a test results fixation with intellectual development.
“I can find a lot of people who want to talk to me about pedagogical styles to get intellectual engagement, but when it comes down to human nature, we pursue things that we love and learn to love,” she says. “That’s an emotional reaction. It’s not an intellectual reaction. The emotional and intellectual can fuel each other, but in order to really make it part of who you are, both have to be there.
“When I (taught) teachers I would say to them, ‘Scientists have a conversation with nature.’ We provided them with these experiences that have engaged humankind for centuries: experiences with electricity, experiences going outside and looking up at what they see in the night sky. One of my favorite questions to ask was, ‘Nature is speaking to you. What is she saying?’ That question embodies that sense of wonder that we all have as little kids. Those of us who do science and who do engineering still maintain that sense of wonder. That’s what I devote my life to helping others maintain.”
The need to include girls
One new program that embodies all three – intellectual, social and emotional learning – is Girls Who Code. The goal of the non-profit is lofty, reaching 25 percent of the “4.6 million adolescent girls” who will “require some form of exposure to computer science education to realize gender parity in 2020.” And in the field of computer science, where the number of women has dropped from a high of 38 percent in the 1980s to the present estimate of 25 percent, that’s a significant challenge.
The program invites high school sophomores and juniors to apply for acceptance into the seven-week summer immersion program. The 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily schedule hosted in nine cities across the country (up from one city in 2012) includes instruction in robotics, web design and mobile development in addition to presentations and workshops by professional women in the field. Career-focused mentorship begins during the summer session and continues throughout the school year with one-on-one mentoring and local and online social clubs.
“I started Girls Who Code to create opportunities for girls to realize their dreams,” says ReshmaSaujani, founder and CEO. “I saw girls being left behind. In some parts of the (New York School) District, I would see kindergarteners with iPads. But in other neighborhoods, kids didn’t have access to working computers, or didn’t have WIFI.
“Lesley is a great example. She comes from a poor community, and a lot of the small business owners in her neighborhood are immigrants. After the program, she started creating websites for these bodegas and Laundromats to build their online presence and make them more competitive.”
While McMahon advocates starting this kind of approach with Pre-K learners, the foundation for any program is the same – a personal connection.
“I’ve worked in formal education in K-12 school districts, and I’ve worked in informal education for a long time. What is effective across those audiences is … to spark a fascination about how things work,” she says. There’s a wonderful opportunity for immersion in the questions and engagement with the compelling objects and phenomena.
“When a family comes to the Science Center, I want them be fascinated. I want them to experience a planetarium show and perhaps be introduced to the same wonders of the night sky that hooked me when I was 10 years old. I really want them to engage with each other emotionally and socially so that it’s something that they remember for a long time.”© Margo Pierce