Reworking lessons and the classroom environment can help girls excel at STEM courses
Despite recent advances, women remain underrepresented in the workforce in many science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. K-12 schools have been working to cultivate and encourage girls’ interest in STEM, and narrow the gap in girls’ participation in science courses. Yet, many girls enter my science classes lacking confidence in their abilities or expressing that they’re just “not good at science.”
I, too, used to have that mindset. I enjoyed science in elementary and middle school. However, in high school, my science classes were primarily comprised of lectures and worksheets. I made straight As, but I never understood the concepts. I merely memorized facts in order to do well on tests. At the time, I thought that meant I wasn’t good at science. It wasn’t until I got to college and started doing lab work that I started to enjoy science again and where I realized I could excel at it.
Here are a few strategies I use in my classes to engage girls and encourage them to pursue STEM in high school and beyond.
Make it relevant
To make science relevant to students, create lessons and activities that connect to their lives. This not only gets them engaged, but it helps them remember what you’re teaching.
In my AP Environmental Science class, it’s relatively easy to do this by bringing in current events and real-world issues. In AP Chemistry, it can be a little more challenging. So, to make those connections, we implement inquiry-based instruction that takes advantage of technology tools for collecting, analyzing and visualizing data.
For example, in a lesson on Gay-Lussac’s Law, we explore the relationship between temperature and pressure. Since many high school students are driving — and love driving — we start by looking at how the temperature outside can affect the air pressure inside a tire.
To kick off the discussion, I ask if anyone’s tire pressure light came on during the first cold morning of the fall. I ask students to hypothesize why. Then they break into small groups for hands-on lab work.
Each group immerses an absolute pressure sensor and temperature sensor into an ice bath, and monitors the changes in temperature and pressure as the water heats up. Using software related to the digital sensors, part of the Pasport line from PASCO, students can see a line graph that helps them recognize that pressure and temperature are directly proportional to each other. Using their own data, they can see that if the temperature goes up then the pressure goes up and if the temperature goes down then the pressure goes down — and vice versa.
Next, we talk about students’ findings and how they relate to the initial question about tire pressure. Thanks to their work with the sensors it becomes much easier to understand that on a cold day, the air particles inside the tires lose energy. Since they don’t hit the inside walls of the tires as frequently or with as much force, the pressure in the tires decreases. Alternately, they understand that as the temperature increases, the gas particles move faster and hit the insides of the tire more frequently and with more force. The more times the particles hit the inside of the tire, the higher the pressure will be.
Using these real-world examples and the same technologies that real-life scientists use, concepts that initially seem complex suddenly become much more understandable.
Next page: Easy ways to make it relatable
Make it fun and relatable
I’m constantly searching for ways make science relatable to the everyday things in girls’ lives. So, for a lab on the intermolecular forces of different types of alcohol, I created an activity that uses fingernail polish and remover to illustrate that the vapor pressure of acetone is due to weak intermolecular forces, which is why it evaporates more quickly than water or other compounds that contain strong hydrogen bonds like alcohols.
To begin the lab, I ask the girls to paint the boys’ fingernails (we get the parents’ permission in advance). Then, the girls use nail polish remover on the boys’ nails. The boys immediately notice that the acetone feels cold on their fingers. While the girls are already familiar with this sensation, it’s new to the boys, which makes it fun for everyone.
Then, I ask students to take the temperature sensor and dip it into a series of alcohols of increasing molecular size to examine vaporization rates via rates of cooling. This helps them see that the stronger the intermolecular force, the harder for the alcohol to vaporize and vice versa.
Make it safe
Students — particularly those who lack confidence in their STEM skills — need to know that the classroom is a safe place to try new things, take risks, and expand their horizons. They need to know that they won’t be ridiculed or dismissed — by the teacher or their peers — for asking questions or incorrectly answering a question.
Allowing students to first explore in small groups, talk and figure things out on their own makes the lecture part of our lesson more engaging. It also helps students feel like they’re all coming into the lecture at the same place.
It’s also important to be approachable. I encourage students to ask me questions before, during and after class — in person, via the Remind website, or via email.
Helping students, especially girls, feel like they can be scientists is critical as well. Conducting labs, even in lower level science courses, builds understanding and makes students feel important, like they can actually “do science” and succeed.
Make it accessible
I use a program called ScreenCast-O-Matic to record my classroom lecture each day and then post to YouTube. This allows students to watch the lecture, in private, as many times as needed to build their understanding.
Make it popular
My students and I often post about our lab activities on Instagram and Twitter. We also include photos to drive home the concept that anyone can participate in STEM.
In addition, posting on social media makes our classes seem fun and relatable, which they are. I also use hashtags like #GirlsInScience and #GirlsInSTEM to further encourage girls to join my classes and explore these fascinating subjects.
Make a difference
Thanks to these strategies, I know I’m making a difference in students’ lives. Many girls have told me that after taking one of my classes, they could actually see themselves doing science because it no longer felt distant or intimidating. Several have even gone on to pursue STEM in college or graduate school or as a career.
Using inquiry-based learning and hand-on technologies helps me engage all students through real-time data that connects to real-world applications. This helps students make the connection between STEM and their own lives. It helps them build confidence and increases their understanding, which improves their academic performance. These connections make higher education or a career in STEM seem possible and attainable.
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