Thursday, October 28, 2010

The SciGirls Seven and Model Airplanes

I'm feeling a bit guilty about my last post. After all, I represent the Noyce Foundation, and we work to inspire girls, among others, to pursue science and technology. Yet here I am saying I hated radio-controlled model airplanes.

Last week, I attended the National Girls' Collaborative Program conference for after-school STEM science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Among the attendees were the staff of SciGirls, a PBS program about science for tween girls. The show builds on seven research-based strategies for engaging girls in STEM. Most of them would probably apply equally to boys. The seven principles, condensed somewhat, are:

1. Collaboration, especially when it feels fair
2. Personally relevant and meaningful projects
3. Hands-on, open-ended projects and investigations
4. A chance for girls to use their own approach, creativity, and talents
5. Specific positive feedback on aspects of their performance girls can control
6. Encouragement to think critically
7. Relationships with role models and mentors.

When I look back at the radio-controlled model airplanes in my life, it's easy to see why they didn't attract me. To be honest, there was no room for me in an extablished bonding activity my father and brother shared. I came in late, with no special skills to offer. There was no chance to collaborate on an even playing field. Any tasks given to me would be low-level closed tasks, with no room for my special interests or talents, such as writing or making things up. And once we went out to the flying field, it was a completely male environment. Women didn't fly model airplanes.

I liked science. I loved my science books, with their beautiful pictures and strange theories about things like how the earth was formed. I liked doing experiments. In sixth grade my father helped me with a long and complicated independent project on growing radish seeds hydroponically. He brought home from Fairchild white plastic bottles full of chemicals, and I selectively left one or another chemical out of the peat moss mix, with positive (all the chemicals) and negative (water only) controls. I loved it. Growing plants without soil - that caught my imagination. I thought about how to design the experiment, and I made my own choices. My data made sense and I wrote the project up beautifully. Most of all, I got to spend time with my beloved and approving father.

Somehow we have to help girls (and boys) share experiences that play the role that flying model airplanes did for my brother or that my hydroponics project did for me. Kids deserve the chance to be immersed in something that matters to them, where their skills and thoughts count, and where they can gain competence while interacting with an important adult. That's one of the things the Noyce Foundation is trying to do with our focus on out-of-school science, and it's something I'll be writing more about.

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