I knew the all-girls Principles of Engineering class I had fought for and was now teaching at Morristown High School would be special because it was a first. I had no intention of teaching differently to the girls, why would I? Same quizzes, same content, same hands-on projects. Then came the day when they pushed back.
Mrs. Kolker, you really need to stop that.
Stop what, Melissa?
Stop throwing us into the building activities without any direction. Tell us what to do.
I was shocked. Tell them what to do? C’mon girls, get with the program! Lean In! But they weren’t having it, and this was when it finally hit home, during what I call The Intervention. The conversation during which I was forced to accept what I had hitherto refused to believe. That engineering is different for girls. Rather, that girls have different needs when it comes to setting the stage for learning engineering, and that I was not addressing these needs adequately. And they made sure I knew it.
Now, as someone who successfully navigated her undergraduate engineering degree, I knew that the material was not too much for them. It was something to do with how I was teaching it. And thus began my research… surveys, discussions, and much trial & error. Trying to find out exactly what was going on with these girls and what could be done to right it. Out of this came some observations I would like to share with you.
#1 Girls hate to fail.
This was the first realization I came to as a direct result of The Intervention. They were telling me that they wanted more structure, more guidance, more work and less play. They had no tolerance for failure. It turns out that my students weren’t alone in this. Time magazine’s 2015 article Why Failure Hits Girls So Hard explains that girls feel differently about failure because it confirms their fears that they are not good at something. They are experiencing what Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset, in which a student believes that a low grade confirms that she is not good at something.
This fear of failure is a serious problem. “As women’s grades fall in economics or STEM classes, their likelihood of ditching those classes rises,” says Bryce Covert in an article for The Nation entitled Why Women Rightly Fear Failure. Girls are brought up in a world where “they are “good” or “smart,” which implies that traits like smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t.” In engineering school, classes are hard and not everyone gets A’s. Perseverance is a requirement for getting to graduation. This may explain why girls disproportionately opt out of engineering programs in university, contributing to what is universally known as the leaky pipeline in STEM.
The girls in my class were, very simply, afraid to find out that they could not do engineering well. I had to help them prove themselves wrong.
#2 Girls are inexperienced and unsure of themselves with equipment & tools.
This is a manifestation of the fact that few high school girls have had the opportunity to handle tools. Like it or not, things like construction kits, multimeters, saws are still more likely to be found in the hands of dads and sons. Consequently, most girls are not as confident in their use. A good example of this can be seen in this Verizon commercial, which does an excellent job of demonstrating subtle gender bias at play.
Another factor affecting girls in engineering classes is stereotype threat, when a member of a minority group fears that his or her actions will confirm a stereotype about the group to which he or she belongs. Girls fear that they are not going to be good at using the tools, and in combination with no previous experience, you have girls who demonstrate a severe lack of confidence and competence. For these reasons, girls will almost always defer to the boys in a group when it comes to tools and construction.
It is our job as PLTW teachers to make sure that girls learn to use these tools, and to build confidence in themselves as a result. Even if it means taking the tools out of the hands of their male classmates. I believe it is not just our job, it is our responsibility as teachers to level this playing field.
#3 Girls don’t like high stakes.
“I’m going to fail.” This was the start of every test period during the year. The girls in my class were sure about the fact that they couldn’t succeed in this engineering class. On every one of the tests.
After some research, I discovered there was a name for this. They were lacking in self-efficacy, the confidence to tackle the task in front of them. This is particularly true for girls in science and engineering classes, less true for them in English class or other more typically female domains. Girls are immersed in a culture that teaches them they are not supposed to be good at math, science or engineering. This increases anxiety levels in girls, which in turn causes them to disengage.
The way around this is to actively work to reduce the stress in the room, which can help girls succeed. When they were sure of their imminent failure, I would promise them they could refer to their notes during the last ten minutes of the test. When it came time to do so, only 2-3 girls actually took me up on it, the rest had succeeded in finishing the test. In this way I neutralized their anxiety. And their test performance was stellar.
How can this information help us help future PLTW girls to succeed? Below if a brief summary of how I was able to navigate my girls around these issues.
Girls hate to fail? Give them structure. Help them to feel comfortable and confident so that they can succeed. And just as important – help them to accept their failures. If you’re lucky they will fail and fail and then succeed, which builds both confidence and resilience.
Girls are unsure of themselves when it comes to equipment & tools? Acknowledge that they are novices and that while they may be behind others in this, they will learn. Encourage them to participate. Don’t allow them in groups in which boys will tend to take over.
Girls don’t like high stakes? Competition and testing are where girls disengage. Reduce stress levels in class. Create a culture of collaboration and working together to achieve a goal. Reward groups that are good at teamwork. And don’t let any students, boys or girls, believe that their test grade is evidence of ability or aptitude.
Do girls learn differently? No, I believe they do not. But when it comes to STEM, the chips are stacked so high against girls that it is nothing short of ludicrous to expect performance on-par with boys. There are many small changes we can make in our classrooms that will help to level the playing field and encourage more girls to participate in STEM. The first step, however, is being aware that when it comes to engineering, it’s different for girls.