A conversation with Beth Alexander, Linden’s Grade 6 Teacher and Curriculum Leader.
Beth Alexander participated in the 2015 National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (NCGS) Conference: From STEM to STEAM: Girls’ Schools Leading the Way, which was held at St. Catherine’s School in Richmond, Virgina this summer. The conference provided her with a valuable opportunity to participate in discussions with her peers from across North America, and to exchange best practices for teaching girls. According to NCGS, girls' schools lead the way in graduating women who become scientists, doctors, engineers, designers, and inventors. Research shows that girls' school graduates are six times more likely to consider majoring in math, science, and technology and three times more likely to consider engineering careers compared to girls who attend coed schools. Nevertheless, women continue to be vastly underrepresented in STEM careers.
For the past 12 years, Beth has brought her creative energy and passion for working with young people to Linden. Beth is a frequent speaker at conferences across Canada and the United States, giving workshops on topics related to girl-centred, social justice pedagogy. She has also published articles in Rethinking Schools, Elements and Crucible Magazines, and teachers' guides for Penguin Books and the Canadian Organization for Tropical Education and Rainforest Education. Beth shares some of her findings from the NCGS conference with us below:
Linden: Beth, you have helped shape Linden’s move towards embracing the STEM to STEAM argument. What are the advantages of connecting the arts with science, math, and technology?
Beth: Design is such an important part of the inquiry process. Essentially, the inquiry process is a framework that encourages students to ask their own questions, to use different academic skills to answer them, and to engage in the high levels of critical thinking required to analyze the data they've collected. This is obviously the way girls at Linden, for example, complete their projects for the Science and Technology Fair. But it's also the way they approach ideas in history, investigations in math, and projects in art. The process of design—in which students identify and solve problems related to form and function—is almost identical to the scientific method. They both involve experimentation and analysis! Since we no longer live in a world where memorizing facts is more important than knowing how to use those facts to solve interesting problems, schools need to reinforce higher-order thinking skills like inventing, creating, and evaluating.
The STEAM movement builds on an old idea: that subjects don't stand in isolation, but are highly interconnected. Linden has always used an interdisciplinary approach, and I'm proud to help move that forward with events like the Social Justice Data Fair, which connects math skills with topics traditionally studied in history or geography. This year in the Grade 6 program, for example, we'll be marrying art, math, and science skills through projects like our electronic quilt. Girls will learn traditional skills like contour drawing and embroidery, and will fuse them with new ones, like designing and building working electrical circuits using conductive thread and washable LEDs.
Linden: What were your main takeaways from the NCGS conference this year?
Beth: Girls' schools around the world are leaders in progressive education. This is true even at schools with a far more “traditional” approach than Linden's. Research shows, time and time again, that single-sex schools do a better job of encouraging girls to pursue STEM fields, do better at encouraging athletic involvement, prevent dropping out of high school, and even do a better job of managing mental health concerns. Girls' schools are also trailblazers when it comes to issues pertaining to social justice. One of the most useful and meaningful sessions I attended was a panel discussion about the meaning of “Girlhood” in a world that increasingly recognizes the fluidity of gender. How should girls' schools approach transgender students, for example? Who is “a girl”? These are important and pressing questions.
I also had the pleasure of meeting teachers from across the world who are passionate about teaching girls. I heard researchers share their findings, such as the largest analysis to date of the factors that keep women in computer studies careers. I also listened to pioneering women talk about their experiences in STEM. One of my favourite sessions was led by Ellen Stofan, the chief scientist at NASA, who spoke about the importance of carving out spaces for girls. Girls need to be taught to advocate for themselves, she argued, and to demand equal access to powerful spaces. At the same time, we need to ensure the integrity of these spaces, and to break down traditions (such as “weed out” courses in first-year university sciences) that only serve to reinforce inequitable power structures.
Linden: What’s the Maker Movement and how are we incorporating it?
Beth: Increasingly, in a world where factory-made goods are plentiful and cheap, and where technology has progressed to the point where we can't easily repair our own machines anymore, people rarely make things by hand. The Maker Movement aims to reverse this trend. There are many cognitive benefits to building things, including increasing problem-solving skills, and even increasing happiness! Working with our hands is an important part of being human.
I have always had bins of “stuff” in my class—from pieces of wood, to cast-off machines to take apart—and teach girls how to use hand tools in the science and technology program. This is a joyful and rewarding experience for everyone, with girls challenging themselves to try new things, even when they need to overcome nervousness. There is something very empowering about learning to use equipment like a soldering iron, especially in a world that doesn't always encourage girls to learn technical skills. I also find it interesting that many of our most popular clubs at Linden, such as EdGE, involve making things. Kids don't need to be convinced to join the Maker Movement!
Linden: Since women continue to be vastly underrepresented in STEM careers, do we know why so many girls choose not to pursue careers in STEM-related fields and how we can empower girls to shift this paradigm?
Beth: The metaphor most often used to describe women in STEM is a leaky pipeline. Although girls in primary and junior grades are engaged and excited about STEM topics, and though they achieve at higher rates than boys at this age, by the time we look at industry, or high-ranking positions in universities, those women are largely absent. This is especially true in the computer sciences, which is worrying. Companies like Google are currently investing a lot in trying to figure out why women aren't pursuing computer science careers. (This is not a charitable effort, by the way: evidence shows that companies with diverse workforces are more profitable.) Part of the problem is a perceived lack of work/life balance in STEM careers, and part of the problem is an ongoing culture of sexism in many workplaces, unfortunately. I hope this is changing with time.
So what can schools do? Several recent studies have shown that encouragement from teachers is one of the most important factors that determine whether or not a girl stays in STEM. We also need to give girls the confidence to feel entitled to take up space in STEM environments—to say “I belong here.” I am proud to say that the “leaks” in the STEM pipeline are not evident here at Linden: almost all of our high-school students take math and science until graduation, and our graduates choose STEM majors at university at a much higher-than-average rate.
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