There’s been a longstanding debate around the importance of encouraging STEM ( science, technology, engineering and math) studies for girls — especially through the middle- school years. To keep the momentum going, a number of schools are applying more innovative approaches to ensure that young girls are engaged and encouraged to stay with the STEM program.
“It’s not enough to talk to girls when they’re 14 or 16 about selecting an engineering or technology career. It’s about building a level of comfort and getting involved in the process when they’re young,” says Michael Ianni-Palarchio, director of technology and innovation at Branksome Hall in Toronto.
Branksome’s STEAM ( the added A is for arts) program not only exposes the girls to technology, he says. “We are really approaching this as a blend that reflects the skills needed in this day and age.”
Branksome offers a number of initiatives dedicated to STEAM learning, starting with the Maker Space in the junior school where girls learn to build things, using basic tools such as hammers, glue guns or sewing machines, as well as modern tools like 3D printing and coding. “By middle school they are very comfortable with the idea of exploring ideas, taking risks and experimenting,” he explains.
Middle and senior students can often be found at Branksome’s STEAM Innovation Centre, where they continue to leverage available technology. “Girls tend to have a very creative approach that is highly collaborative, and they embrace the social aspect of working in teams,” Ianni- Palarchio explains. “So we don’t just ask them to create programs. We ask them to come in and solve problems and pick the tool that works best, whether they’re developing a wearable device or programming a robot.”
Perhaps the biggest highlight of Branksome’s interdisciplinary curricular approach is during the spring break, when Grade 9 students visit its sister school, Branksome Hall Asia, in South Korea. There, they work in teams to design and build wind turbines. “It takes things the girls traditionally learn in a siloed subject area and shows its applicability in solving problems,” Ianni- Palarchio says. “There, they learn to apply their knowledge in mathematics, physics, environmental science, CAD, circuitry design and building to a real-world application.”
When Alise Cloutier took the trip it was an enlightening experience, she says.
“We got to live in their residence, experience the culture and work hand in hand with girls at the school. It’s opportunities like that trip that really pushed me in the direction of STEM studies, because it made it seem very attainable.”
As a co- ed facility, The York School is instilling its own cross- disciplinary ap- proach to STEAM projects in order to engage both male and female students equally. Justin Medved, director of learning, innovation and technology, says, “We have actively taken a look at math and science curriculums to apply STEAM broadly. Rather than just learning through content and delivery, we put students in front of authentic challenges they really have to wrestle with and work out.”
He says girls tend to gravitate toward challenges that offer an opportunity for design expression. “That’s where they can feel they are achieving things.”
Numerous studies have shown t hat f rom a science perspective, girls’ and boys’ brains develop differently, Medved says. “When it comes to design, girls do better earlier. That is one of the unique challenges we deal with here. If you embed the design piece into a middle- school curriculum, you have got that covered. And if you maintain that activity as they move through high school and expose girls to career choices, it could lead more of them to pursue careers in STEM.”
It can be an uphill battle keeping the momentum for girls in STEM, admits Keka Nag, creative director at the Thinnox Academy in Mississauga. The school specializes in technology engineering and design for young adults in preparation for a university and career in fields such as engineering, architecture, graphic design or animation.
“We are always concerned about getting more girls into these fields, especially computer science, mechatronics, robotics and math. We want that healthy balance that motivates both boys and girls.”
Thinnox has been focused on expanding female enrolment, including offering a 50 per cent discount starting in 2017, as well as setting up speaking engagements and workshops with female chief executive officers and industry leaders.
“There is a lack of knowledge about how girls can succeed in STEM- related f i elds,” Nag says. “They feel they might not do well because it’s competitive. But that’s a misconception. Girls possess wonderful leadership and design qualities, and are great at micromanaging projects and multitasking. If you give a girl the job of designing a game or building a 3D printer or a robotic car, they will enjoy that and be motivated.”
“When you can create an experience that engages girls, you have created something anyone can plug into,” Medved believes. “But if your curriculum is only content-heavy, there will be attrition.”
IT’S NOT ENOUGH TO TALK TO GIRLS WHEN THEY’RE 14 OR 16 ABOUT SELECTING AN ENGINEERING OR TECHNOLOGY CAREER. IT’S ABOUT BUILDING A LEVEL OF COMFORT AND GETTING INVOLVED IN THE PROCESS WHEN THEY’RE YOUNG — MICHAEL IANNI-PALARCHIO
Original article can be viewed at: http://www.pressreader.com/canada/national-post-latest-edition/20161011/282260959975783