The influence of traditional ideas of gender roles and stereotypes still significantly impacts the number of women and girls who pursue passions and careers in STEM fields. On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we are proud at Wellan to celebrate our Design Lab Specialist Merav Rosen, and how her example and instruction encourages students to dismiss these stereotypes and work together to create an inclusive environment in which to learn.
Wellan students start Design Lab classes at the Lower Elementary level, and continue consistently through sixth grade. Cycling through multiple units over several years —including hand sewing, machine sewing, cardboard construction, woodworking, upcycling, and robotics — Wellan students learn self-sufficiency and practical skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives, regardless of gender.
Speaking to her own experiences as a woman who pursued her passion for STEM work, Merav credits her father with encouraging her from a young age: “I think that I owe a lot of it to my father, who was completely ahead of his time, and treated me as my brothers or as anybody else. He introduced and trusted me with tools at an early age, so it became second nature to me. He didn’t see any reason not to trust a child with tools once you teach them safety rules. I remember feeling very grateful and very proud.”
From her experiences with her father to her experiences with her own children, Merav learned the importance of parental involvement and encouragement in inspiring young people to pursue STEM activities, sharing, “encouragement and parental involvement is really important — and I’m thinking about my own daughters — they were always involved in creating and building until they got to high school; and then they needed to choose their electives, and they could choose a science related class or a class most of the other girls were choosing. That’s when my husband and I got involved to remind them, you are really strong in engineering, you are really strong in graphic design. You can do it, I know you love it, why don’t you give it a try? Children need an encouraging voice to guide them.”
If you have a young scientist, technician, engineer, or mathematician, here are several concrete steps you can take to reduce the influence of gender roles on their passion and encourage them to pursue it!
Introduce your child to STEM at a young age.
Merav comments on how beginning Design Lab classes at a young age, and continuing technical learning in a group setting over the course of several years, benefits Wellan students: “Absolutely, starting with them at a young age helps reduce the influence of gender stereotypes in our space. The mixed age and mixed gender is also really important, because often you can see a boy helping a girl, or a girl helping a boy, no questions asked.” Parents can do this by reading their children books with interesting stories about scientists, or science related topics. Check out this list of STEM books written especially for girls! Additionally, parents can find games for children that incorporate math in imaginary ways, such as a Geoboard, or games that allow for building and construction.
Dress for the part!
Fun outfits that feature scientific and mathematical themes can reinforce children's natural interest in STEM topics and help them see themselves as future engineers and scientists. For girls, these clothing items can be harder to find. If your daughter would love STEM-themed shirts or leggings, try here. If she'd like a twirly dress covered with numbers or symbols, look here.
Participate in a STEM program.
Choose a no-pressure program outside of school for your child to try. It could be a vacation camp, workshop, or anything of the sort. This will provide an opportunity to expose your child to hands-on learning in a variety of STEM subjects. Libraries often have free programs as well, where professionals in STEM fields speak to children’s groups and lead lessons or demonstrations.
Offer your own experience and expertise.
If you’re a parent and either work in STEM fields or have an interest, background, or education in a related area, help inspire your child to follow your lead. Act as a role model! Help them form a club at their school, organize a trip for them to accompany you to your workplace, and answer any questions they may have.
Invite your child to work with you around the house.
When you have tasks to complete, such as maintenance work on the lawn mower, changing a bicycle tire, or mending an article of clothing, invite your child to work with you. Explain what you are doing as you go, what tools you are using, the sequence of steps you are taking, and why. Give your young learner a chance to help! They will be proud you invited them to work with you, and it will give them the opportunity to learn from you as well. Merav speaks to the importance of working with her students: “I’m always working with them. I never just watch the students work. They need to see how I use the tools. They need to learn that it’s okay to make mistakes. I design everything, and of course I make mistakes too.”
Break it down.
When it comes to the sewing unit in Design Lab at Wellan, the influence of gender stereotypes goes both ways: “When I introduce the sewing machines, there is some hesitancy from the boys, like they want to say, “I don’t know anything about this girl’s tool,”“ says Merav. As a way to help change this mindset, Merav guides students in taking apart the machine and studying its inner mechanisms: “I gave them screwdrivers to break it down and see how it works from the inside, so they could see, hey, this is a pretty cool machine. It’s not very sophisticated, but it does magical things. After we took it apart, the whole view of the machine changed, and they didn’t see it as a girl’s tool anymore. Once you have an understanding of how this machine works, it’s not a boy or girl thing, it's just a machine that does amazing things.”
Utilize online resources.
As children get older, they may want to explore the many blogs, podcasts, and other online platforms that are available to watch or read on any subject they may be interested in. These blogs can have a powerful impact on empowering children to explore their own interests in these fields. Supervise your child in discovering some valuable online resources they can learn from! TED Talks are an incredible source of information, and a way to learn that is interesting and accessible.
Trust and encourage them!
Merav recounts how the way her father trusted her with the responsibility of tools and caring for machines empowered her, sharing, “We lived in this very small place, and no one drove cars. Everyone drove these motorbikes, and I really wanted one. My father told me I could have one if I was able to take care of it, if I could change the oil, change the plugs, and things of that nature. I asked him if he could teach me, which he did, and he kept his word and I kept mine. So it’s about trust. People say you’re crazy, how can you give these young kids saws and tools – I don’t think I'm crazy! It's incredibly rare that I have a child that does something irresponsible. They are proud and they follow the rules. It’s amazing, if you trust them, they trust you back, and they trust themselves. They can do so much…. You just have to tell them, over and over again, you can do it, yes you can do it. I would never ask you to do something that I knew that you could not do.”
As children grow older, they might encounter people who discourage them from careers in science, especially girls (stereotypes still abound!). Our planet has many problems in need of solutions. These solutions require wisdom, knowledge, and hard work — none of which are gender-based traits. Parents can start planting these seeds now. If you believe in your children, they will believe in themselves!