STEAM Education: Why Do We Need More Women and Girls in Science?
International Day of Women and Girls in Science, organised by the United Nations, takes place on Friday, February 11.
Portobello Institute is marking this day with a series of blog posts, highlighting the work and achievements of many of our team and students who excel in sciences, sharing our insights on the topic and getting behind the awareness on social media with the hashtag #WomenInScience
Portobello supports the work of women in science through STEAM subjects and learning in early childhood studies and our sports science qualifications.
This blog post was written by Dr Marguerita Magennis, the Course Coordinator Masters in Early Childhood Studies & Lead Lecturer BA Hons degree Early Childhood Studies at Portobello Institute. Read her full profile here.
Why Do We Need More Women and Girls in Science?
As educators, we are so aware that STEM concepts are vitally important for both boys and girls, and I don't see them as being gender-specific.
However, historically there has been a trend for boys to be engineers, scientists, or work in the technology industries.
Thankfully this outdated notion is changing, and we see in education today a greater consideration of the skills to be gained from engaging with STEAM, gaining skills such as problem-solving, innovation, conceptual, analytical, and critical thinking.
These are all skills that everyone needs to develop if we are to become equipped for adult life, and the jobs of the future.
Just consider how quickly the world is changing in terms of careers, and I know you look at your little girl now and think she doesn’t need to worry about a job or a career just yet, but we need, during these early stages, to consider the underpinning concepts that lead to children gaining the skills they need.
So one of the most important reasons that young girls and women need to get involved in science and STEAM education, is to ensure they are equipped for the jobs of the future.
Women Scientists in History
For centuries women have been making a massive contribution to science, so it is not something unheard of, we have Marie Curie (1867-1934), best known for her contributions to Radioactivity; Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958) known for her work on Molecular Structures; Barbara McClintock (1920 -1992) and her discovery of genetic transposition; and we have many more, women who studied the science of the mind, how and why our brains function in particular ways, Anna Freud and Melanie Kline discovering the value and importance of Therapy and Play Therapy for children a different kind of science but still requiring the crucial skills and analysis which the underpinning concepts provide us with.
And not to forget Dr Sheila Tinney, the first-ever female fellow at DIAS, and the first Irish woman to gain a PhD in mathematical Science – originally from Galway (I'm a little bit biased), she holds a very special place in Irish history.
Miller (2015) a Psychology researcher found that this stereotypical image of men being scientists exists not just in Ireland but across the world.
So as educators how do we promote and convey the message that girls can be scientists too?
In early education, we can begin to challenge these stereotypical views by engaging with the language of STEAM, including resources and images which show children the female scientist, the female GP, etc.
We should be as part of our STEAM pedagogy inviting female guests who work in science into the settings and schools, planting this seed that #WomenInScience is something positive and something of value and importance.
Introducing the Concept of Science From an Early Age
We can build on the naturally occurring curiosity of the child by introducing science concepts through the use of STEAM language and activities, planting the seed for future growth.
Introducing the concept of science in early education fuels the fire of the future, and brings out a sense of wonder, awe, and curiosity for young girls encouraging the skills they need to become an agent of change and the leaders of the future.
How can we as educators help our young girls to achieve this?
In a recent blog I shared the seven basic concepts of science, let me just revisit them here with the focus of engaging young girls in science with the underpinning concepts of STEAM:
Observation and the senses: This innate quality is one that children engage with from an early age. Giving children objects and items to explore, encourages this observation. Give a child an apple or an orange, for example, they begin to explore the shape, colour, size, texture, and taste; is it soft or hard, squishy, or solid. Lots of exploratory concepts and questions emerge, even when the child doesn't have the words to express what they see or experience.
Comparison: Once children have been provided with opportunities to explore, their natural innate curiosity encourages them to compare, to look for similarities and differences in these objects and experiences. This is one of the main underpinning concepts of evolving critical thought and problem solving, skills that can be carried with them into the future and their employment.
Even very young children and babies engage in these comparisons, often unnoticed by the adults, as children mouth objects, exploring if they have a taste, are they hard or soft, thus building on the initially observed concepts and beginning to see connections. A very important stage in the early development of scientific concepts.
Classification and sorting: Classification is a higher level of engagement and thinking. Children begin to order, sort objects and experiences based on similarities. During this grouping and sorting activity, children begin to compare at a higher level, they do more than identify blocks for example, but through deeper engagement and thought processing, the child will identify that some blocks are different shapes, sizes, colours, weights, and therefore they will begin to order these based on similarities and differences. This higher order of thinking is essential for scientific thinking and concepts to begin to develop.
Measuring: As children are provided with opportunities to explore and investigate objects and activities, they develop emerging concepts of measurement, size, weight, length. Here we see a crossover between science and early maths and engineering, and again underpinning concepts that will enhance a young child/girl's career prospects in the future.
These concepts can be developed by simply encouraging children to explore their surroundings, allowing them to lift, look and touch different items they encounter. Again, the scientific mind beginning to emerge with the need for evidence to support their hypothesis.
Communication: With the younger child/girl often sharing their observations through discussion, learning that it is important to share their views, findings, or discoveries with others. There are numerous ways of disseminating results, for example talking to children as they explore can encourage them to share their perspective, thoughts, views, or discuss what they are thinking. Allowing or encouraging children to draw what they have seen, for example - one block is bigger than the other, and you can quickly determine their level of understanding based on what they produce in terms of size and shape.
For younger children who might not have the vocabulary to share insights into size, as the adult, you can determine that this is noted if they draw two different-sized blocks. showing the emerging concepts of scientific thought, differentiation, and the ability to critique and evaluate situations. Older children might keep a journal or make charts to show differences they have noted. For example, a weather chart measuring the rainfall for each day.
Inferring: Children will retrieve information that they have already stored or experienced (Vygotsky); this level of thinking allows children to draw on already gathered information and determine or predict what they think might happen in each situation. For example, the flowers in the window are dry and withered, so the practitioner asks the children to consider why? What is causing these flowers to droop - children recall watering the plants, they understand that they need sunlight to grow but also need water as they recall information from previous experiences of planting seeds, and therefore with consideration, the children will be able to determine that the flowers need watering. This ability to infer what is causing the problem and recall previously stored information demonstrates the emerging concepts of the scientific mind.
Predicting: Children should be provided with opportunities during their play to make guesses or predictions based on what they see, or what they have experienced previously. For example, asking a child to predict what is going to happen next as you prepare to drop an apple into a bucket of water – will it sink or float? Based on prior experience the child might well give the correct answer, but younger children might not. It is important however to encourage the child to attempt to make a prediction and then proceed to drop the apple into the water so they can see what does happen.
These activities evolve through play, and all of these transferable skills provide girls with opportunities and concepts they need in order to strive forward and be successful regardless of the job they embark on in later life.
Every day is a science day – regardless of gender!
So, help our girls engage with the underpinning concepts of science so they have the skills they need for the future!
Every day we experience situations that involve us recalling and exploring solutions. It is important to remember that science is everywhere, it is not something that we do with children, but rather something that children encounter as they engage with their daily experiences, both in and outside of pre-school.
Emerging science concepts can be seen in the simplest of situations, for example, a bug creeping out from under a stone on a nature walk (it isn’t only boys who like bugs!) – why was it under the stone? Branches swaying in the breeze, what is making them move? Why are apples different sizes? Where does rain come from? And so on.. all these naturally occurring situations help to develop the scientific and inquisitive mind, they help the child/girls begin to question why things happen, to look for answers, and to infer and predict why something might be. As a practitioner, our role is to recognise opportunities to enhance this naturally occurring process, regardless of the gender and age of the child.
Find out more
The theme for the 7th International Day of Women and Girls in Science Assembly in 2022 is “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: Water Unites Us”. Read more about that here.