Solving problems with science

Some girls go through a horse phase. My daughter, Louisa, went through a volcano phase. She was in elementary school when she discovered that baking soda plus vinegar—plus food coloring, if you’re feeling extra adventurous—equals messy, bubbly fun. She’d conduct these experiments on our front porch, or on our kitchen floor, and the excited look on her face convinced me that if I could bottle that enthusiasm and turn it into energy (talk about a science experiment!), we could heat our house for the winter.

I was reminded of this enthusiasm a few months ago when I attended a SciGirls season-launch party with my technology-adept 12-year-old son, Elias, and his math-loving friend, Ariana. Produced by Twin Cities Public Television, the weekly PBS Kids show aims to spark and strengthen girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) before they enter high school. SciGirls won a Daytime Emmy in 2011 for outstanding new approaches in public television, and five of the 10 episodes in season two feature girls and mentors from Minnesota. 

I confess I wasn’t familiar with the show until I attended the party; I’m no longer a devoted PBS Kids viewer now that Louisa is 16 and my sons are 14 and 12 (although I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Arthur). Minutes into the first episode, though, I became a fan, as I discovered how inspiring it was to watch real girls having fun while solving real-life problems. 

It also was inspiring to talk to the some of the girls and their parents afterward about how the show has deepened their interest in STEM and in pursuing STEM-related careers.

Josie Wulff, a ninth-grader from Brooklyn Park, stars in an episode about multitasking, in which she and two other girls conduct an experiment to see how listening to music affects concentration.

Her dad, Joel Wulff, says he’s tried to foster his kids’ interest in science and technology by involving them in everyday tasks around the house, like fixing the garage door. He and Josie agree that her involvement with SciGirls has boosted her confidence.“You can do anything you set your mind to; you can figure out how to solve a problem,” she says.

Lisa Regalla, the show’s manager of science content and outreach, says the middle school years are a time when many girls begin to underestimate their science and math abilities. Parents can support their daughters by affirming that it’s OK to make mistakes—it’s not only expected, it’s encouraged. 

“As we’ve shown in the episodes, everything doesn’t work all the time,” Regalla says. “Science is a process. You learn through your mistakes, and you move on.”

Making a living

STEM education is important for both girls and boys. But SciGirls focuses on girls because it hopes to encourage girls ages eight to 12 to continue taking STEM courses in high school and college, and to consider careers in STEM.

Studies have shown that even though girls, on average, take slightly more science and math classes in high school than boys, and young women now obtain half of all undergraduate degrees in math and the majority of degrees in health fields, they are less likely than young men to choose careers in science and engineering.

According to a Girl Scout Research Institute study, one barrier in attracting girls to STEM careers is a lack of knowledge about what STEM careers are and what they offer. 

SciGirls takes this to heart by connecting girls on the show with female mentors who work in STEM fields, and who help the girls design their own inquiry-based investigations—whether it’s designing a bicycle-powered ice cream maker or finding the best way to insulate an ice house. 

The show also recognizes the important role that parents play in encouraging their daughters to take STEM classes and consider STEM careers. 

Even though my daughter has no plans to become a volcanologist, I’m confident that the critical thinking and problem-solving skills she’s developed in her science and math classes—and in those messy kitchen floor experiments—will serve her well in any career she chooses.

Joy Riggs is a mother of three teenagers. She lives in Northfield. Send comments or questions to [email protected].

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