To embark on a “STEM for Girls” program, I want to provide a context for a curriculum that is intertwined with gender.
First, the use of the word “STEM for Girls” in the opening sentence, will never be attached to the actual curriculum. This program is designed to be attractive to young girls (age 5-12), but their male counterparts are more than welcome to jump in. The final titles will ultimately be “STEM Dollhouse Design and Miniatures”, “STEM Fashion Design”, and the maker/hardware curriculum is “Spy School for Kids”.
My one-sentence manifesto is simply the question: who is the default in our culture? When we make STEM curriculum that is designed to be inclusive and “for everyone” who do we have in mind as the audience? There is a feeling that when you make a website with a pink background, you’ve immediately ruined your gender neutrality. I would conversely argue that if pink is the color of girls, then army green is the default color for a “Girls Not Allowed” sign. There are exceptions, but often when something is army green or navy blue, and features dinosaurs, soldiers, rocket ships, battles and robots – many girls – nay, my own self as a child – could immediately read the culturally encoded message and feel that the product or project was not for me.
I always make the curriculum I want for myself, and as a woman in technology, I don’t feel any sheepishness about my attraction to things that have feminine associations. I was not a tomboy as a child- I was a maker and I loved to build things – I made my own dolls and stuffed animals. I loved bookmaking, paper arts, and learned to spell my own name by embroidering it on a pillow. I loved stores, fake money and commerce.
With my childhood projects came scientific, mathematical and technological challenges. The first math problem I ever needed for my personal life was scale; my dollhouse had a 1:1 ratio, so if a vase was fifteen inches tall in real life, I had to figure out how big to make my dollhouse-sized equivalent. I struggled with adding an electrical system so I could have working lights in my dollhouse. In first grade, my best friend and I went on a month-long jag where we mixed colors with a rigor I would not embark upon again until I studied color theory as an adult. We could have learned a lot more if we’d had the supplies and training to turn our colors into fiber reactive dyes. Pattern making – a translation between two and three dimensional objects, was a hands-on process of trial and error. Crafts, miniatures and the creation of objects are filled with wonderful mathematical, engineering, chemistry, and technological learning opportunities.
It’s a widely held cultural myth that girls are not as scientifically oriented as boys. Their interest is simply hidden because they’re doing it within the mediums that our culture does not hold in high regard. We never think to tie in these disciplines with math, science or academic rigor. We also need to foster skills in one of several areas in which young girls statistically outperform boys: fine motor skills. We do not understand an IQ equivalent of “being good with your hands”, but until more is known, we need to explore the connection between engineering and the tactile experience, which is the core of our “maker” curriculum.
Thus this STEM curriculum, without ever saying “girls”, celebrates these objects of desire that have been connected with femininity for hundreds, and in the cases of dolls, thousands of years. It offers tiered exercises, courses and lesson plans that are appealing, educational and challenging. We will also avoid the use of the word “girls” so as to not stigmatize male participants, and instructors are welcome to change language (like a dollhouse can be called a diorama) and adapt the materials in any way they feel is appropriate to reach their particular students.