Dr Wendy Fasso, lecturer at Central Queensland University, specialist in e-learning through design, and leader of the program Makerspace, spoke with Sophie Minissale about tackling the stigma of young girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) subjects.
I was never very into maths or science. Recently, I was reminded of an embarrassing story from my Year Two class. Upon being directed to an addition or subtraction worksheet, I attempted to break all my pencils in a desperate effort to avoid solving the mind-boggling problems. Much to my dismay (and many of my future Mathematic teachers’) my skills (and attitude) to STEM subjects didn’t improve at all over the years. However, now past my years of compulsory maths and science, I’m wondering whether my incompetence in these subjects was actually entirely my fault.
Dr Wendy Fasso from the Central University of Queensland focuses most of her research on how to engage young girls in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) subjects. One way she approached this project is through introducing the Makerspace initiative. Essentially, Makerspace refers to a physical space in which “students are engaged in the creative manufacture of artefacts as a community enterprise”. It can range from a tool shed for metal or woodwork, to a sewing group. Dr Fasso finds that often a more “low-tech” approach is most effective in engaging young people into design and technology. Examples of this include simple robotics, coding or even Lego building. In the majority of her Makerspace classes, Dr Fasso invites groups of young girls to create their own “wear-able tech, such as fascinators and jewellery, that has been built and programmed with things like flashing lights”.
The stereotyping of STEM subjects begins very early on. More often than not, even at a primary school age, STEM subjects are seen as “nerdy” subjects or are marketed as “only for boys”. This kind of mentality creates stigma and is problematic when trying to get young girls interested in the STEM fields. It’s no secret that women are drastically underrepresented in STEM related careers – a statement released in December last year by Hon. Arthur Sinodinos, (Minister of Industry, Innovation and Science) revealed that only one in four IT graduates are women, whilst only one in ten engineering graduates identify as female. As Dr Fasso puts it, “the first issue is about equity”. Despite women proving themselves to have abilities equal to men, there are hardly any female role models in STEM, and consequently, it provides very little for young girls to aspire to. This in turn strengthens the gender divide and the stigma in STEM areas, something which Dr Fasso states to be distinctly evident in her research. The problem is clearly observable when girls state their reasons for not being involved in science programs – “we thought it was only for the boys” or “it’s too boring and nerdy for us”. Unfortunately, this mentality of being unequal to their male peers in STEM areas begins early.
It becomes apparent that girls are not supported in aspiring to STEM related careers. More specifically, the way we teach these subjects can have an underlying and perhaps unintentional gendered tone. In my exchange with Dr Fasso, she told me of a student teacher who explained to her that a large majority of the programs and games played in her IT class were of a “shoot and conquer” variety, and thus largely inclined to male interest. Dr Fasso says that “if I invited girls to an activity in which they were to program Lego to do something mechanical…many would disagree. If I asked the same girls to engage in programs using sensors and colours into their fashion, we are more likely to engage those disengaged.” And ultimately, that’s the most important part. While the initiative does take on the appearance of a gendered approach to engaging girls, Dr Fasso finds “the net outcome is the same”. Both parties would ultimately learn the same skills with regards to programming, and for some girls, the narrowed idea that they have of technology and science may start to change. Whilst pulling girls out of class and separating them from boys to make light up jewellery may create another type of divide, I think what’s more important is changing what STEM means to young girls, and being able to provide a variety of learning options in classrooms for them to engage in.
According to Dr Fasso’s research, children begin to construct their concept of self through the acquisition of new skills and the self-evaluation of how those skills rank in accordance to their peers. Dr Fasso finds that if girls are in “a learning environment [that] is sufficiently interactive and transparent so that [they] can make their own decisions such as “if he can do it, so can I”, they develop a greater motivation, but if children compare their performance with others and lose a sense of self-confidence, despite their talents, they quickly lose that motivation.” With this in mind, it becomes apparent why initiatives like Makerspace are absolutely paramount. In Makerspace, the idea of comparison and “failure” is drastically different to that in a classroom. What’s unique about the program is that it doesn’t place one child’s achievement against that of another, but rather the trials and failures experienced in a Makerspace environment are used to plan strategies for the betterment of the overall project. This ultimately will improve the confidence of young girls when it comes to problem solving – a skill that will help them in their STEM oriented endeavours.
However, I still wondered, why is there a push for girls in the areas of STEM subjects, when there is not for the unequal representation of males in teaching or nursing? The answer – with women representing half the population, the experiences of women should be considered in the development of technological innovation. Dr Fasso argues that without this co-gendered decision making “you risk ignoring the perspectives of half the population”. This divide becomes apparent in instances such as voice recognition software, which Dr Fasso explains is “largely designed for and tested by men”. It seems strange that developers would omit 50% of the potential market, and downgrade the user friendliness of a product because it has not been designed sufficiently for all users. To showcase more female role models in STEM industries will encourage more girls to explore the possibilities of a STEM related career, and ultimately provide alternative perspectives and innovations to the mostly male-exclusive fields.
While I no longer snap pencils at the sight of numbers, and despite the fact that I don’t have an extensive interest in fashion, I can appreciate what programs like Makerspace are trying to achieve. I hope that eventually through these programs, ideas and preconceptions will change and young girls will be welcomed into STEM careers, rather than being pushed aside into the out-dated, gender-stereotyped careers of yesteryear.
Words by Sophie Minissale, art by Lilli Foskett
This article first appeared in print volume 88 edition 3 SOAP.