Seeing Yourself in STEM: A Motivation Program for Young Women and Their Parents

Contributed by Cassandra Byrd, Abigail Kemp, and Russ Olwell

Girls at the elementary and middle school levels interested in science, and motivated to take more of it, often do not persist in taking STEM classes at the high school level. Furthermore, those girls who enroll into STEM majors their freshman year often dropout or switch to a non-STEM based program. To address this issue, we designed a series of workshops to encourage STEM interest and motivation to elementary and middle school girls, and to provide their parents/guardians with tools that would effectively encourage their daughter(s) in this area. The four Saturday workshops featured activities based upon the journey of the Mars Rover Curiosity, with some separate sessions for students and parents.  

Most important to the program was helping students “see themselves” in a STEM field, and to help them view science and technology as an area that is not primarily for men, but open to all different types of people. At the close of the program, students completed a “Draw a Scientist Survey” that invited students to simply draw what a scientist looks like, and we saw that students in the program were more likely to draw a female or gender-less scientists than students who did not participate in the program.
Draw-a-Scientist survey                                                            From a “Draw a Scientist Survey"

Following Curiosity, the Mars Rover: Activities for Young WomenSample Planet

Planet building: In the first activity, the parents worked together with their daughters to create planets from assorted materials. We then had them model the process that scientists use to gain data about new planets by having them observe their peers planets while taking anecdotal notes.

Mars landing: In the second activity, the girls created their own egg drop device and sky crane that was dropped from the first floor of the Science center. The parameters of the activity were to mimic how Curiosity landed on Mars. To recreate this, the girls designed a sky crane to fit within their egg drop device. The goal being to protect their $2.5 billion dollar egg and deliver it to a specific location on the floor.Egg Drop in Action at EMU Science Complex

Remote controlled Rover: This activity was the ultimate test in student collaboration. Students were paired up and then separated until the end of the activity. One student mapped out a pre-established course to identify how far Curiosity needed to travel to each waypoint. The other student was in another location testing out the distance a remote control car traveled forward and backwards. After this, the girls rejoined and the student who mapped out the location provided directions to the person controlling the car. The catch was that the student controlling the car had no ability to see the course.

Creating Mars Surface: In the final activity, we had the parents work together with their daughters to create a landform from three volcanic eruptions. The girls would create a volcanic eruption, sponge it up, and then use a marker to trace the outline of the liquid. They would then fill this in with different colors of clay. This was repeated three times. Mapping the Path of Remote Controlled Cars

The groups then exchanged their creations and excavated the surface to learn about how each landform developed. They had a variety of tools to choose from, each mimicking a process that scientists look at when obtaining data: natural erosion via water, mining, and road building. The groups chose three spots on the landform and then used one of the techniques to identify the number of levels at that location and its depth.

Girls’ Responses: The Need for Hands-On Science
We conducted short discussions with the girls to talk about what they learned in the program. For the most part, it was identified that the girls’ perceptions of science were altered by this program.Creating Mars Surface

“Normally we have to read from a giant textbook and take a bunch of notes and it’s really boring, so here we get to do fun activities with hands-on stuff. I like that.”

When asked what they liked and disliked about having a girls only program, the girls felt for the most part that having boys was important too. Although they agreed it was not without its own problems.

“I think that boys and girls have very different ideas and it’s interesting to hear both. Sometimes it’s hard to interact with both. “

“I liked having all girls, because a lot of girls almost think the same so it was fun sharing the same ideas. We didn’t have that many disagreements, because boys and girls think really differently. But it’d also be cool to have really different ideas.”

Parent Feedback: We Need More Programs!
Parents expressed a desire for more STEM programs and expressed happiness with the hands-on learning format. “It made it easier to understand the interactive hands on stuff, instead of just opening a book – the kids are bored to death with bookwork. My kid is excited when she comes home.” Unlike the girls, the parents overwhelmingly supported having a girl’s only STEM workshop. “Girls raise their hands a little less, teachers call on girls less often – I love the girls only aspect of the program.”

The parents also highlighted how much the girls enjoyed the program overall.

“Neither of my daughters wanted to come the first day – when we left that first day, they wanted to know when we were coming back – they were so excited to come back.” “My daughter has been excited from the start to come.”

How Girls’ perceptions about scientists changed
One evaluation that was implemented to test if the girls in our program changed their view on science was the “Draw-a-scientist” survey. This survey asked them to imagine a scientist at work and draw that image.

The goal of this survey was to identify if the girls subconsciously thought scientists were men, women, or both. Ideally, all pre- and post- tests would reveal that the girls thought that the job of scientist belonged to both genders.

The STEM girls final results were compared to a control group of girls of similar ages and geographical backgrounds. The control group consisted of twenty girls, ranging from 5th to 8th grade. The students who did not go through the workshop mostly drew male scientists (45% to 35% female and 20% genderless), while a majority of the participants in the workshop who attended 3 or 4 sessions drew female scientists (80%) or genderless representations (20%). The evaluation also suggests that the more exposures girls have to females in STEM, the more likely they are to view scientists as belonging to both genders.

This program took place at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and drew students and parents from throughout the Southeast Michigan region. The program was run by Cassandra Byrd, Abigail Kemp and Russ Olwell. The program was inspired by the sense that many more young women would enter and persist in STEM fields with encouragement and support from their family and other adults in their lives. The program was funded by Michigan Space Grant.