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.