February 11 was the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, created by the United Nations as a way to advance gender equality for women and girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). What better day for me to pick a fight with LEGO?
I know, I know: Everyone loves LEGOs! Why would I want to take on this storied toy company? But please, read on. My tale shows that, even with good intentions, companies, teachers and parents may be diverting girls away from STEM fields.
Recently, a friend gave me a Women of NASA LEGO set as a gift because she knows that I am a champion of girls and women in science. I decided that it would be a fun activity to do with my six-year-old niece. The package specified the toy was for ages “10+” but—and I am biased here—I figured my niece could handle it.
As we opened the package and started to put the pieces together, I realized that the set consisted simply of three platforms and four women scientists. Apparently, all we were supposed to do was build a platform related to each scientist’s most noteworthy achievement and then attach each scientist to her platform. That was it. There was no playing, no creativity, nothing scientific and definitely no fun involved in the exercise.
Don’t get me wrong: Any time we can celebrate and teach girls (and boys) about important women in STEM like Nancy Grace Roman, Margaret Hamilton, Sally Ride and Mae Jemison, all of whom were featured in plastic miniature in the LEGO set, I am excited. Each of these women has made a tremendous impact on STEM and motivated many students, both girls and boys, to pursue careers in physics, computer science, engineering and other STEM fields.
I applaud LEGO’s efforts to make these role models and historical figures known to children. However, I worry that the format they used could inadvertently promote the very stereotypes that discourage women from pursuing these fields.
Women represent barely 15 percent of the workforce in engineering, and under 30 percent in physics, math and computer science. There are many reasons for this, one being the way failure is framed in our culture, particularly for girls. Anyone who has ever persevered through a task, a career or a degree knows that failure is part of the learning process. But girls, beginning as early as elementary school, are implicitly taught that the “ideal girl” is a meticulous and organized note taker who only speaks when called upon. And when called upon, she knows the right answer. She colors between the lines and does not fail, because she doesn’t take risks.
But successful scientists are risk-takers. They must risk failing, over and over again, in order to learn. But girls who take risks, perhaps faltering in the process, are neither supported nor rewarded, unlike their male peers. (Girls and boys of color are even less supported when taking risks, and in fact are often disciplined for it—but that is for another article.) Studies have shown that even in school lab settings, boys are more likely to play and tinker with the materials, whereas girls are more likely to be the notetaker for the group.
Science is messy and, by definition, full of failure. Yet toys like the Women of NASA LEGO set create a dull, scripted experience entirely at odds with the way these women persevered through the messiness of science. In the LEGO kit, girls simply follow step-by-step directions (indicating that there is only one way to do it, a very unscientific mindset) to create a figure that just stands on its pedestal and smiles, like a beauty queen. They are static, unbecoming caricatures nothing like the dynamic, energetic, brilliant women they represent. These static figures are then placed on a shelf as an “accomplishment” for the girls who assembled them.
But in real life, in real science, the accomplishment isn’t following directions and creating a trophy; it’s becoming a risk-taker, a critical thinker, perhaps even a scientist. We need to stop teaching girls that mistakes are wrong, and stop reinforcing behaviors differently in our homes and classrooms based on gender, race and ethnicity.
My perspective is not just that of an aunt who wants to empower her niece, but as a researcher who studies diversity and inclusion within STEM fields. For the past dozen years, I have worked with a girls-only STEM summer camp called SciGirls, run by the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Fla., in partnership with our local PBS station, WFSU. Originally launched by Twin Cities Public Television as a popular PBS series and website, it has grown to include research-based educational programs that improve girls’ STEM identity.
My research on these programs, along with the contributions of other amazing researchers, demonstrates that girls are more willing to persist through difficult tasks when they feel a sense of success and value related to the task. So, role models, teachers and parents play an important role in helping girls and boys to realize that some tasks require effort, whether physical or mental. Growth and learning can only occur when we push ourselves outside of our comfort zones. Our SciGirls camps and hundreds of like-minded programs across the world are encouraging girls to take risks and make mistakes in a supportive environment that helps them see that they not only belong in STEM, but can thrive there.
We need to teach all of our youth that creativity, messiness and mistakes are a natural part of learning on the path to becoming future stars like Nancy Grace Roman, Margaret Hamilton, Sally Ride and Mae Jemison. We should encourage them to break the mold, be untidy, be messy. Rather than following directions, sometimes they need to follow their curiosity, and their heart. That’s the kind of practice they need to one day create the next quantum computers, superconductors, space ships and telescopes that will lead us all to a better future.
With that, I’m throwing away the LEGO directions to make a point against perfection. Next time my niece comes over, we’ll play again—this time making plenty of fun, creative, messy “mistakes.”
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