So Our Daughter Is Interested in STEM Subjects, Now What?

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STEMSigns of our daughter’s fascination with how things work started as early as six months. I will never forget the first time she reached her little hand up into the spigot at the head of the bathtub. You know that little lever you pull up to start the shower? She found it and giggled incessantly as it moved up and down. Forget the rubber duckies, this girl played with the spigot for months.

While her fixation with levers and assembling things have continued throughout the past four years, it’s recently been accompanied by a heightened interest in astronomy. She’s fascinated by the solar system, trying to get her arms around just how far 92.96 million miles really is (Earth’s distance to the Sun). The library space books are piled up beside her bed – she can tell you which planet is the largest, which is furthest away from the sun and what makes Saturn’s rings.

This is an awesome thing, right? And what a better time – there seems to be such an explosion of conversation and products focused on encouraging little girls to engage in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects. But as I sought out educational toys for her this Christmas, I was pretty surprised at how many manufacturers and marketers are trying to fill in this gap. Spoiler: It involves a lot of pink, weird, genderized building toys.

So What’s the Deal with Girls and STEM, Anyway?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up 47 percent of the total U.S. workforce, but are much less represented in particular science and engineering occupations. They comprise 39 percent of chemists and material scientists, 28 percent of environmental scientists and geoscientists, 16 percent of chemical engineers and just 12 percent of civil engineers.

This U.S. News and World article says it’s this lack of representation of women in these fields is one thing that’s fueled the Obama administration’s “Educate to Innovate” STEM initiative… along with helping Americans land higher-paying jobs.

To address this issue and capitalize on the opportunity of millions of parents just like me who are looking to encourage their daughters’ interests in STEM subjects, toy makers have answered. So much that Fortune Magazine recently identified STEM toys for girls as a “hot new trend.”

But as you start looking through the options, there’s no escaping the gender bias at play. (READ: There are a TON of pink toys that do “girlie” things.) But do not despair, you CAN find building and science games and kits for pre-school girls that aren’t pink too, like this airplane building kit from Kids First.

Building a bi-plane.
Building a bi-plane.

In an op-ed, Dr. Amy Flesischer, a professor and chair of mechanical engineer at Villanova University says, “My worry is that with ‘Women in STEM’ the current ‘Flavor of the Month’ for special interest groups, society will offer a few ideas, such as these dolls, as a panacea without addressing any of the broader cultural issues and move on. A few years from now will we as a country be saying, ‘Girls in STEM…Oh yeah, we tried that, it didn’t work, no one was interested’.”

So in a quest to go beyond the “flavor of the month” toys, here’s a few things we’ve found that can be fun AND enrich our daughter’s STEM interests:

  1. Help her identify some cool women in science. While there’s been some controversy around Elizabeth Holmes’ company Theranos, you’ve gotta stand up for a 19-year-old who drops out of college to form a $10 billion company that completely disrupts an industry–particularly one as established and regulated as the healthcare industry. Learning about these women and their achievements can be an inspiration to both you and your daughter.
  2. Take some cool field trips. From checking out a laboratory at a local university to going to more kid-friendly science destinations such as the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus (rated #1 Science Center by Parents Magazine) or the Kentucky Science Center in Louisville, we have some great options for science destinations where she can get a hands-on experience within a short driving distance.
  3. Do cool stuff at home. Remember making the tornado out of a 2-liter bottle and some oil? Thanks to Pinterest, we have an endless supply of science experiments we can do without blowing up our homes, like making a glowing volcano or growing crystals overnight.
  4. Check out the cool stuff at the library. The library has so many great resources for kids – from checking out space print and audio books to watching the 3D Laser Printer in the MakerSpace at the downtown library.
  5. Talk to her about all the cool stuff she can do. Entertain the seemingly unimaginable with her and explore the world of possibilities open to her through a future in science. Wouldn’t it be cool if she could build a vehicle that would transport us to her nanna’s in less than three hours or find a way for everyone in the world to have access to fresh water?

Who knows what the gender divide will look like in STEM professions once our daughters begin their careers. Heck, there’s a great possibility that our daughter’s interest in space is just a “flavor of the month” for her too. But ultimately, helping nurture these interests hopefully inspires our children and instills confidence in them – a goal for any parent. 

As the physicist and chemist Marie Curie once said: “Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”

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Born and raised in the Buckeye state, my husband and I moved to Cincinnati a few years ago by way of Chicago so we could be a little closer to family. We love this little big city, particularly when the trees start to bloom, fireflies are flickering and Riverbend is rockin'. We have two amazing little toddlers who continually entertain us with jokes and great dance moves and three chickens. I write about food, lifestyle and parenting at my blog www.andicurry.com.

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