To Attract More Girls to STEM, Bring More Storytelling to Science

Scientific American
To Attract More Girls to STEM, Bring More Storytelling to Science
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A student from High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey CREDIT: Marissa Hazel

Guest Post by Jonathan Olsen and Sarah Gross, teachers at High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey

Women and girls are historically underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields and much has been written lately about why girls in school seem disinterested in these areas. As STEM becomes more important in our increasingly interconnected global society, it becomes even more imperative that educators find ways to encourage girls to participate in these fields.

A few weeks ago, researchers at the Universities of Pittsburgh and Michigan released the results of a study that reflected many girls' antipathy toward all things STEM. The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, tracked about 1500 college-bound students over a decade and found that more women had the highest scores on both the math and the verbal portion of the SAT test than their male counterparts. These women were more likely to pursue non-STEM careers after graduation even though they excelled in those fields in school. As the principal researcher of the study, Ming-Te Wang, summarizes, "This highlights the need for educators and policy makers to shift the focus away from trying to strengthen girls' STEM-related abilities and instead tap the potential of these girls who are highly skilled in both the math and verbal domains to go into STEM fields." We couldn't agree more.

As educators in a STEM-focused high school, we come in contact with intellectually gifted female scientists every day--albeit young ones. We also know there aren't enough of them. As a school, we struggle to attract young women who want to attend an engineering-focused high school in the first place. In our time here, we've never had more girls than boys in any given class. Too often, our gender ratio is lopsided. We know that this is not a result of ability. As the Pittsburg-Michigan study showed, and what we experience every day in our classrooms, is that there is no shortage of girls who could successfully pursue anything they wanted. The girls in our school are brilliant and many do pursue careers in STEM-related fields. However, some choose not to, and other smart girls never even make it through our front door. Why not?

Perhaps girls with high verbal scores choose careers other than STEM because their passion hasn't been kindled in those classes. We know it is not the fault of their teachers but a problem of process. For many schools, arts and sciences are rarely ever integrated. Teachers are kept apart with little time to collaborate.

If integration does happen, it is usually the humanities teacher looking to include aspects of STEM in their courses. The recent adoption of the Common Core Standards by forty-five states calls for more integration between subjects. However, ask most humanities teachers and they will tell you that they are being told to integrate STEM content into their classes, removing literature for nonfiction, rather than being given the opportunity to collaborate with their STEM counterparts. Integration is wonderfully effective and certainly the future of education but it is a two-way street. We think schools should use reciprocal integration between the arts and sciences to capture the imagination of these top female students.

How many engineering teachers include a fiction book like Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano in their syllabi? Do many math teachers analyze the intricacies of M. C. Escher's artwork with their students or read Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo? How many science teachers read aloud the poetic observations of Dr. David George Haskell? Do many biology teachers share the story of the HeLa cells? We think ideas like these should be a part of all STEM curricula. And experts agree. The Next Generation Science Standards, released for public discussion last week, ask teachers to show students how insights from many disciplines fit together into a coherent picture of the world. And we believe that incorporating more storytelling into science can help do this.

Research has shown that storytelling activates the brain beyond mere word recognition. In 2006, researchers in Spain discovered that stories stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life. Last year, a team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that similes and metaphors can activate sensory portions of the brain, and the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France discovered that action words can stimulate the motor cortex. So if, as the recent study in Psychological Science shows, female students with high ability in both math and verbal areas tend to steer away from STEM careers, maybe it's time to bring more of those verbal skills into the STEM classes for the benefit of these students.

The importance of storytelling in science has been growing over the last few years as scientists work to communicate with the general public and stimulate more critical thinking about important issues. Cornell University's Bruce Lewenstein, a professor of communication, leads an annual workshop to teach science storytelling to scientists. This year, the World Science Festival will include a special event called "Science & Story: The Art of Communicating Science Across All Media." Scientists recognize that science and storytelling are intertwined. Unfortunately, all too often students are introduced to science through uninspiring textbooks and fact-laden lectures by teachers who mean well but must stick to a curriculum dictated by standardized testing. In many of the schools from which we receive students, science has been relegated to a half-year curriculum or a few days per week. These teachers are faced with the challenge of squeezing the stories of science into textbook readings and workbook pages.

Think of a typical high school biology class. The advances in cellular biology over just the past five years could fill a book. Textbooks are outdated by the time they are printed. So instead of worrying about teaching students every fact about cell biology, why not embrace the stories of cellular biology and teach students to think like biologists? The Common Core Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards both ask teachers to help students dig deeper into fewer topics, but teach students to engage critically with science and technology. Biology teachers can do this by bringing reading and writing into their classroom. Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the true story of a poor black farmer whose cells--taken without her consent in 1951--have become one of the most important tools in medicine. The cells helped in the development of the polio vaccine and are crucial to advances in cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and much more. Reading the book can introduce students not just to cellular biology but also to issues like class, race, and bioethics. Instead of reading from a textbook they would be engaged and growing as global citizens who can think critically as they analyze the narrative of science rather than just the data.

History is full of examples of what we now call polymaths. We're familiar with Omar Khayy?m, Leonardo da Vinci, and Benjamin Franklin. But what about Hypatia, Maria Gaetana Agnesi, or Hildegard of Bingen? The arts weren't subservient to the other STEM-related passions in any of these individuals. Instead, the arts and sciences were equally embraced with one fueling the other. If teachers taught STEM subjects through the lens of story we think many of those high-achieving girls with astronomical verbal scores might be more interested. It sure beats a pink microscope.

Jonathan Olsen (@jonathanaolsen on Twitter) and Sarah Gross (@thereadingzone on Twitter) team-teach an integrated humanities, science, and technology program to ninth grade students at High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey. High Technology is ranked the #1 STEM high school in the nation by U.S. News. Jonathan and Sarah are regular contributors to the New York Times Learning Network and their writing has appeared in Edutopia, ASCD, and The Washington Post's Answer Sheet. Sarah also helps teach a middle school science enrichment program through the STARS Challenge program at Monmouth University. Jonathan serves as his district's curriculum supervisor.

More on the Next Generation Science Standards:

States Say Evolution and Climate Change Should Be Taught in Schools

Will The New Science Standards Can Teach Young Earthers

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