As the 21st century marches along, girls are growing up in an interesting time.
Girls have many more opportunities for education, work, athletics, entertainment, and more, than they did just a few decades ago. At the same time, girls are retreating from some of the most important opportunities that exist in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.
Here are five very good reasons to keep young girls interested in science and ways you can help your little scientist become, and stay, interested in STEM.
1. Science teaches other stuff
Science projects, in all their messy, smelly, blinking, smoky glory, show children how the world works. Projects help children learn the cyclical processes of nature, or how electricity can be harnessed, or the way molecules move. Each of those learning experiences becomes part of the foundation of knowledge that helps a child move more confidently through life.
Science projects teach children vocabulary words that travel with them beyond the actual project itself. Consider a simple project like growing a plant from a seed: Children learn words like root, stem, leaf, bud, flower, and pollination. Each of these words will help your child gain meaning in other areas of learning, beyond the little tomato plant blossoming in your windowsill.
Experts say children also develop important social skills when they have opportunities to learn that are grounded in real activities, like a science project. Children learn to ask questions about things they don’t know, and find answers. It’s not unlike imaginative play in that it helps a child make connections between what they can actually see and what they can imagine, like the roots that emerged from the seed they planted, growing below the soil.
2. Science is creative
As adults, we often think of science as being full of routine, numbers, and tests. In fact, science projects, especially for very young children, are often creatively driven. Mixing paint colors, like red and blue, to get new colors, like purple, is both a science and an art project.
Watching a tadpole develop into a frog offers opportunities for telling stories, whether deeply loved fairytales or brand new inventions. Your little one can take a photograph, using your phone or with an actual camera, and learn how different equipment operates, while also learning how to compose a pretty picture.
Science projects also teach creative problem solving by requiring children to complete a task or achieve a result they may never have encountered before. This helps children learn to explore what it is they already know and how that knowledge can be used in different ways.
3. Examples change attitudes
Study after study shows that beginning sometime in their teen years, girls participate less in science- and math-based activities and as college students and adults, they don’t pursue STEM education or careers as often as boys and men.
Doing science projects early, according to some research, helps girls learn that science isn’t just for boys. It chips away at the attitude that there’s no place for girls in science. What’s more, it may help teachers, and other adults, recognize that girls are capable of science-based learning, an important step to making sure adults provide opportunities and encouragement for girls.
4. Science needs women
We often hear the story that for decades, women died needlessly after medical professionals failed to realize the symptoms of a heart attack are different in women than in men. Research on heart attacks was done on men almost exclusively, so everything doctors knew about them was related to the experiences of men.
A more recent example is the sleep aid Ambien. It was on the market for over a decade before researchers announced in 2011 that women reacted to it differently and needed to take a different dose than men.
Some STEM experts say the problem is too few women in STEM research. There simply may not be anyone who notices that research doesn’t take into account the uniqueness of women, such as their different average size or the ways in which diseases can act differently in their bodies.
Bringing women into the research fold increases the likelihood that women’s concerns and needs will be taken into account. Along those lines, many experts say more women in STEM fields will bring a wider variety of ideas and approaches to research and innovation generally, not just in relation to so-called “women’s issues.”
Young girls who do science projects discover the huge variety of interests that science addresses. And those who pursue STEM careers down the road could, quite literally, save lives.
5. Science is fun (and learning) for the whole family
If you’re looking for something new to do with your daughter, a science project can be an opportunity to get creative. Recycle things found around the house, share a laugh and a high five at cool discoveries, and learn a little something. Online resources range from the simple to the sophisticated, with many experts and educators offering tips and suggestions.
Science Buddies is a nonprofit organization with an expansive website. After you fill out a questionnaire about your interests, you’ll get dozens of project ideas and instructions for projects at all ability levels. On the Science Sparks blog you’ll find clever, colorful projects that typically require only things found around the average home.
Scholastic maintains a page for teachers with links to a wide range of science projects found around the web. The projects range from the classic baking soda and vinegar volcano to a Harry Potter-inspired project, if your little one wants to do some “magic.”
If you’re a Pinterest user, this is exactly the sort of search Pinterest was made to fulfill. The search “science projects for girls” turns up dozens of options including one for Girls Scouts that has hundreds of followers and some good, gooey suggestions.
In most cases, there is absolutely no difference between science projects for young girls and science projects for young boys.
Your motivation for getting your young girls involved in science projects is often the same as well: Children are natural scientists, constantly testing and experimenting. Science projects, even for the very young, teach language, ideas, and skills all at the same time.
The real difference, and the real payoff, for girls and boys and science comes further down the road in life, where STEM needs girls and women, and girls and women can make great contributions.