This year marks the 25th anniversary of Sally Ride’s monumental Challenger mission. And, since becoming the first American woman in space, Ride has dedicated her career to making sure girls are given the same opportunities to make history in the fields of math, science, and technology.
There is much talk these days about the math and science gap that exists between boys and girls, but in fact, scores from the National Assessment for Educational Progress show very little evidence for a gap between boys and girls in science and math. The problem, Ride says, is that as girls enter high school their interest in pursuing math and science careers begins to drop off. This may be due to lingering stereotypes that calculus and physics are more for boys, but Ride hopes that the growing number of female scientists and engineers will help guide young women into these careers.
Ride says parents play a huge role in dispelling gender stereotypes, and inspiring in their daughters a positive attitude about science.
So how can you get your girl into space, at the microscope, behind the drafting board, and otherwise entrenched in math, science and technology? Sally Ride Science’s Parent Handbook says parents can start by simply talking to their girls about their interests and aspirations, and holding high expectations for them in math and science subjects. In addition, she says parents should examine their own views about math, science and gender. Do you unintentionally convey messages that may reinforce gender stereotypes?
To “dissolve the mystique” around science and math, and to build confidence in problem-solving, the handbook also suggests parents encourage their daughters to explore — and to make mistakes.
Here are some ways to stoke her curiosity!
- Break down the mystique surrounding science. Science is part of everyday life. Encourage your daughter to explore the science and math all around her and provide your daughter with opportunities to ask questions.
- Encourage your daughter to dig into science. Let her know that it is okay for things to get messy, dirty or wet. Science is fun!
- Send the message that science is for girls. There are plenty of women making important contributions to science. Check out biographies of women scientists; talk about the exciting work they’re doing.
- Support your daughter’s involvement in informal science activities. Good informal science activities (for example, astronomy clubs, science camps) are effective in fostering girls’ interests in science.
- Encourage your daughter to experiment. Trial-and-error helps build confidence in problem-solving skills—and it’s part of science!
- Take your daughter to science centers and museums. Provide her with opportunities to explore science in fun, hands-on ways.
- Give your daughter practical experience tinkering with things. Have your daughter help fix appliances that are broken, put furniture together, install software on the family computer, or change a bicycle tire.
Sally Ride Science also points out that the school environment can make or break your daughter’s interest in science, math and technology. Without even knowing it, your daughter’s teachers and friends may convey subtle messages about who a scientist is, which students are “naturally” good at certain subjects, and what learning styles are best. Parents should look into their school’s math and science program to make sure they are using the strategies most effective in engaging girls (and boys) in science and math.7 These strategies include:
- Hands-on activities
- Introduction of role models
- Activities involving teamwork and collaboration
- Activities that have an application to the real world
- Activities that encourage problem solving
The handbook recommends that parents find out what math and science classes their children should be taking at each grade level to keep their options open. Here are some other ways to stay involved in your child’s education:
- Advocate for your daughter. Make sure her teachers are well trained in research-based teaching strategies including gender equity strategies. While teachers don’t intentionally favor boys in their classroom, studies show that classroom practices can benefit some students over others. Teachers should receive specific training in promoting gender balance in their classroom.
- Pay attention to classroom materials. Are posters, textbooks and handouts gender fair? Do science textbooks introduce female as well as male role models?
- Inform yourself about resources at your daughter’s school. Does the school have an adequate supply of lab equipment, computers, and Internet connections? Does the school provide after-school science activities or clubs? Are girls actively encouraged to participate in these?
- Participate in parent meetings. These are good times to ask your daughter’s teachers questions such as, “What is my daughter expected to know in math and science at this grade level?” “What are my child’s strengths in these areas? Where does she need help?” “How can I best support my child in math and science?”
For more information, check out Sally Ride Science