Teaching Girls: RoleModels/Mentors

All of my posts so far have been about teaching physics. It’s time I wrote a bit about the other tagline for this blog and something equally important to me – teaching girls. That’s what I do. I teach at an independent day school for girls. And in the time I have been here, I’ve learned a bit about best practices when teaching young women, particularly as it applies to the sciences. I was skeptical at first, but the research around single-sex education and the benefits it provides girls is pretty convincing. I started with Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher. The work they did at Carnegie Mellon is impressive and I recommend checking this out if you teach any STEM field, but particularly if you teach computer science. Additionally, the Tech-Savvy report put out by the American Association of University Women is another great starting place. I’m far from an expert, but there are a few things that I think I understand pretty well by now.

According to the research, the success of girls and women in science (along with math, technology and engineering) is improved when the following four components are part of their education: mentors/role models, tinkering, collaboration, and purposeful work. While these things can have a positive influence on both male and female students, they have been shown to be especially effective with young women. The inclusion of these components leads more young women to enroll in, succeed at and remain in scientific fields. Today I want to write about the importance of mentors/role models and provide a bit of anecdotal evidence about their effectiveness.

Role Models

One of the things that makes it easier for us to succeed at a difficult task is if the path has been blazed by others before us. These people show us that difficult tasks can be done and that people like us can do them. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson explains this far better than I ever could. (Skip to around 29:30 for an amazing story.)

And of course, if that doesn’t move you, take the words of zombie Marie Curie (via xkcd).  Seriously, those words in her last post are powerful words for a young woman to hear from someone. “Remember that if you want to do this stuff, you’re not alone.” Very often, they are alone. Either as the lone girl in an advanced physics class or the only female student showing up for robotics club, these young women with interests in topics already on the fringe of their peer group can feel alienated by those very interests since their gender singles them out from everyone else in the room. As all of us nerds know, being the only one like you can be tough to handle, especially as a teenager. It makes us question the values of our interests and of our abilities. Those questions and doubts can drive young women away from pursuing interests in science both in high school and beyond.

An easy way to combat this is to give girls role models. Show them women like themselves, that have achieved success in scientific fields. You can talk about Lise Meitner or Emily Noether as xkcd suggests, but what about Admiral Grace HopperVera Rubin, Mae Jemison, or Zaha Hadid? Let the stories you share run the gamut of accomplishments. Don’t only talk about the superstars. Share stories of former students, alums of your school or the college you attended, or even the teachers in your building. Give the young women in your care a view of science that includes people like them and they will be more likely to see themselves as capable of succeeding in science.

Mentors

Another effective means of engaging girls is to put them in touch with mentors who can guide them and share those personal triumphs and challenges with them. By having someone who will engage them within their own area of interest, it lends value to what they are doing. While this can be students or professors from a local university, folks at an amateur astronomy club, or a hackerspace in your city, it can also be you. I’m assuming you got into teaching science because of a personal interest in it. If you’ve moved away from that over the years due to being a full-time teacher, rekindle that passion and spend time learning with your students beyond the confines of a textbook or classroom. That might sound crazy in our current culture that doesn’t seem to trust teachers a lot, but let me share a personal story that might hopefully convince you of the effects of a strong mentoring relationship.

Two years ago, nRT was a student in my honors physics class. I’m pretty sure she signed up for it because everyone told her it would look good on her college transcript and she had take honors chemistry the year before. She was a great student and really took to the modeling instruction that I used in class. Late in the year, after our class finished up circuits, nRT came to my office after class and said “Hey, I want to learn about integrated circuits? Will you teach me?” Now, April is not exactly a relaxing time of year. Seniors grades were coming due, APs were around the corner and I was trying to get a podcasting project worked out for my remaining juniors. It would have been so easy to just push some resources at her, tell her to read them and then move on to more pressing matters. But I didn’t. Instead, I said “Well, I need to rework some of the material for my engineering technology class for next year, but I’ll be doing that work over the summer. If you’re interested, we can do some work throughout the summer months.”

And to my surprise, she went for it. The next three months involved us meeting about once a week at the school to discuss experiments from Make:Electronics. When vacations intervened, we kept in touch through email and Google Docs. nRT spent her own money on equipment and supplies and as we learned together, it quickly became apparent that she would master the content of my engineering class before the start of school. So, I raised the stakes and asked her to be a teaching assistant for the class. She was enthusiastic and excited and as the class launched the following spring, she quickly became my wingman helping me to manage questions, providing wisdom to the students new to the material and helping them to troubleshoot their own work. And then she surpassed me.

After sharing this video of an LED cube with her, she decided that she wanted to build her own. So she did. As part of her senior project, she and another student worked as interns at a local engineering firm where they designed and built LIGHT (Luminous Ingenuity Generation Human Tracker), a 6-foot LED board that tracked human movement. By the end of their time there, nRT and her friend had been offered summer jobs. And along the way, she applied to and was accepted at MIT to study engineering. All this from a young woman, who in her own words, “was not much into science – it all seemed sort of lackluster and boring”. Those words came from a personal thank you she wrote at the end of the year. I won’t share it all with you, but in it, she makes clear the effect the mentoring relationship had on her.

The mentor relationship is one that takes time. There’s no way around that. And I can’t tell you how to find the time for this type of relationship in your already busy day, filled with classes, grading, coaching, meetings and your own family. All I can do is try to convince you of how important it is and how it can change the life of the young women in your classes.

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11 comments

  1. Great story!
    I’m a college professor, but I’m coaching a small robotics team at the high school my son attends. Currently the team consists of three rather geeky guys—what can I do to get a more gender-balanced club? Club Day will be coming up in about 6 weeks, and I’d like the club to be bigger and more diverse. (The current club members just want to do the engineering—they’re not interested in recruiting new members or any of the organizational work of running a club.)

    1. Kudos on engaging kids at your son’s school. I’d love to see more interaction between college profs and high school students/faculty.

      I am by no means an expert on this, but I’d suggest asking the science teachers if they know of any young women that might be interested. If you can, get those same teachers to encourage those students (“Hey, there’s this new robotics club and I think you’d really be good at it based on your lab work.”), that’s even better. Also, look for ties with other clubs. One of my future posts will be about how girls respond to purposeful work. If you have a group that is doing certain types of volunteer work, you may be able to tie the robotics work to artificial limbs, environment control for quadriplegics or other beneficial uses. If you’re doing a lot of robot competitions to destroy the other robot, you might not garner as much interest.

      Let me know how it goes.

      1. We haven’t gotten into robowars. I have a strong distaste for destroying things that took a lot of work to make, and since everything the club does is funded out of my pocket, I’ve not encouraged that direction.

        Currently our main project is an underwater remotely-operated vehicle for the MATE competition. Other teams in the competition have better gender balance, so the task is not inherently attractive just to boys.

        Does anyone have any ideas for entry-level projects that would be particularly attractive, though?

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