Here is a theory on how to motivate more girls to be interested in science and math: connect those subjects to art and creativity.
That’s the goal of an all-girls program in Nashville called Art2STEM. It’s a year-round program, but this summer, 50 girls spent a week mixing art with science—painting and making pretty objects while also inventing designing concepts to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges.
“The two places we’re dealing with are Sudan and Somalia,” explains Carlotta, an 8th grade participant in Art2STEM. “Sudan is kind of a country that’s poor and their water is contaminated, and we thought about making a solar-powered water purifier. And since solar power uses heat, we thought about changing it using the heat to make it cool– so the water would be cold and purified.”
Such big ideas are typical at this camp. The girls work in groups, focusing on various countries and their challenges or unique characteristics. After doing research, each group plans and designs an invention or concept for its country.
Besides Africa, another group focuses on South America. Bayleigh, the group spokesperson, says their idea is to capitalize on tourists’ interest in the many landmarks that are located high atop steep mountains by using ziplines—with a twist.
“We could have something like a hologram guide to tell them something about it… and have like traditional foods and patterns on the seats, music and headphones,” says Bayleigh. “And maybe not just be a straight shot so they can drag it out as they’re going up.”
For this week, it doesn’t matter how extreme the ideas are. The point is to get these middle school girls focused on STEM—and not the kind you find on a flower; STEM as in science, engineering, technology, and math. Those subjects can be daunting to any student. But girls also can be influenced by myths and stereotypes, according to camp coaches.
“I don’t think anybody has told them that they couldn’t do these things; it’s just a matter of what they’re used to seeing, so called women’s roles or women’s jobs,” says Deborah Smith, who has a Ph.D. in math.
Smith teaches middle school math. But as a coach for Art2STEM, she’s also a role model.
“As a female who is a math major, that wasn’t something that girls did. That was a guy’s thing,” says Smith. “ But I try to encourage my girls. Girls are actually smarter than boys in math!”
Smith laughs, but says there’s truth to her statement. She believes girls are just as smart or smarter at math than boys, but boys receive more encouragement.
“[Teachers] often call on the boys more so than the girls in math class. So the girls don’t get to show that side of themselves. And then in middle school, it might not be cool to be that smart girl in math class,” says Smith.
“Historically we know that girls by 5th grade have not been encouraged to pursue science and math,” says Susan Duvenhage, president of Adventure Science Center. “It may be from the home—parents seeing the son and the daughter and this perception that the son is going to do well in science and math and the daughter will not. So we are trying to address that.”
Duvenhage says surveys of girls before and after they participate in Art2STEM show a 30-percent increase in interest in STEM. The girls at the camp seem to affirm that finding.
“I now want to be a chemical engineer because of Art2STEM… because of what it showed me,” says Bayleigh. “It’s teaching me how I can look and invent things, and innovate things. And so, If I do that more, we could all find something and make it better than it already is.”
And programs like this are even causing some to re-think the meaning of STEM, according to Smith.
“It’s called STEAM, instead of STEM– science, technology, engineering, art, and math because art is very much a part of each.”