By: Monica Van Aken, Head of School
Based on the latest statistics revealing that just 4% of girls entering high school are interested in engineering related courses, and only 2% are interested in technology classes, I wondered if the work that we do at MMS shapes the feelings of competence, confidence, and interest amoung students for STEM-related courses. In other words, are our students part of the downward trend of students gravitating toward STEM courses, or do our students graduate feeling that they can take the hardest STEM-related classes in their high schools?
My thought is that our girls would enter high school and seek out STEM-related classes, precisely because their experiences here have given them the knowledge, opportunity for invention, the confidence, and insight into the exciting possibilities of physics, mathematics, technology, engineering, biology, geology, economics, and chemistry.
I asked girls in sixth grade if they were planning on taking the hardest science, math, technology, and physics classes that their future high school have to offer.
"Like, what do you mean? Are you asking if we would take the easiest ones instead?"
I saw that question as a good start.
"Well," I explained, "people in the world of higher education are worried that by high school, girls are shying away from STEM-related courses."
"Are boys shying away?"
"Not as much, but, yes."
"Oh really? That's weird. What would make more girls shy away than boys?"
After a flurry of speculation, from, "maybe they are afraid" to "some people want to be artists, but they need geometry so that's not the reason.." we settled onto my Q&A.
"First of all," Zayna started, "I love science, but I should also say that I love economics. The entire world is connected and is affected by the politics, geography, and the economic activity of every country. I am definitely taking economics in high school, science too, but I love the idea of economics."
"My heart is more into astrophysics," Nina chimed. "I like physics, math and the idea that you can invent formulas to prove the existance of things like dark matter within the greater universe."
Christina was clear that her interest in science was for earthly matters.
"I like what lives in this world, like the animals here. I studied for a classification test, where we had to look at photos and classify every single animal from species to order. I had a stack, it was two inches thick, of flash cards that I made, and I studied so hard. My goal is to get into veterinary school, and acing that exam with its hundreds of questions made me feel accomplished like I'll be able to do it. So, in high school, I am taking biology and chemistry; the harder, the better, that's what I think."
Some kids were less verbal but shared the sentiment for STEM courses.
"My favorite subject is math, by far."
"Why is that?" I asked.
"Well obviously it's because of integers."
To carry on the charade that I, too, love integers I asked her to tell me more.
"Algebra grew on me. It's completely okay not to know everything about an equation because I can play around with it."
I found myself in galactic territory when I spoke to Aishani who said, "I like math, yes, it is my favorite subject above anything else. I love it, I understand it, I like how I am pressed to think in math class, having to figure problems out in a multitude of ways."
"So, are you taking algebra?"
"What? No, no, I am completing the Algebra 2 course."
Zoe told me about her goal of becoming a "competitive programmer" and a "solution hacker" for the US government. As for math classes in high school, she was breezy, saying "Sure, I will take AP Calculus in my Junior year if I haven't already done it by then."
Carmen said that she would become a geologist, because, "We learned so much in geology, I just can't resist the idea of plaeontology, mineralogy, you know, stuff like that."
My casual interviews with 6th-grade girls proved enlightening. They seemed to enjoy the STEM course in our school, (one student who shall remain unnamed insisted that she could code as fast as she typed, which drew hoots and groans from her friends.) Girls spoke about their robotics teams and maintained that the intersection of coding, designing, and piloting robots was "like a sport," and added "Mr. Anastas encourages cardboard-duct tape robot fighting. It's really serious and we all want to win."
On a whim, I stopped to interview 3rd-grade girls in tech class. They were so gentle and focused as they showed me how they use Sculptress to draw a 3D animal. I asked, "What do you like about technology classes?"
They looked at each other, and carefully and tentatively told me, "We want to make battlebots, program them to move into small corners and then flip other bots, we made design ideas for next year." But these were akin to trade secrets, which they couldn't share lest I write about the prototypes and tip other students off when it's time to design battlebots next January.
Ultimately, my random sample of interviews proved that the overwhelming majority of girls at MMS gravitate to STEM courses and are primed to take them in high school.
The sentiment was cheered when Christina said, "Why would girls be afraid to take STEM classes in high school? I would say, 'Come on people, go ahead, give me all of your STEM! The tougher, the better!'"