Why science for girls is probably more important than for boys

There have been, and continue to be, many studies and reports on how to encourage more girls to pursue science and math careers. These studies and reports talk about trying to shake off the nerdy image of scientists and mathematicians, how to use female role models to encourage girls into the sciences or careers involving mathematics. This isn’t a post about that. This isn’t a post about HOW to encourage girls to become more involved in the sciences, it is more of a post as to WHY there is a desperate need for girls to not only pursue a career in the sciences or mathematics but to develop that keen interest that can help them through all walks of life, with one career in particular in my mind.

Due to the reduction in teacher salaries across the world many men who used to be in the profession needed to find forms of greater income and left the role of the teacher in droves. With the gap to fill, and the change from women staying at home to becoming career minded and bringing a second, or even a first, income into the household we saw a huge growth of female teachers in schools. While girls in school, year after year, prove that their gender can outperform boys intellectually on a regular basis across a wide average of subjects, it seems a shame that the dip in science and mathematical ability is not strengthened at this age considering that girls are more likely to become teachers and be the ones responsible for passing this knowledge on.

While I was studying for my Bachelor of Education degree, it became apparent, through discussions with other student teachers, lecturers, and mentors that the one common thread of fear amongst those others taking the degree was their lack of knowledge in the science and math areas. While almost 95% of those studying to become teachers are female, and professing that their science and maths knowledge was limited at best, it scared me to think that these people will be teaching the next generation. In the back of my mind, I guess, I was hoping that this was just a broad exaggeration on their part and that the goal was merely to mask insecurity because of the unknown abilities of others in the class.

I was fortunate enough, during the time of my study, that I was already working in the school system as an education assistant and that I had access to teachers and classrooms to test whether this was just a case of ‘student teacher’ anxiety while going through university, or that whether the teachers that came out of the other end were actually bringing a lack of knowledge into their classrooms. I was lucky enough to have access to some schools of different size and structure to look for my answers. While it was obvious that at a High School level, or at least a District High School level in Australia, there were dedicated specialist teachers for maths and science. I found that the problem was only really glaringly obvious at a primary school level where there was no dedicated science or math teacher. In the primary school setting, it was rare to find a teacher that was so confident with their mathematics ability that they could pass that confidence and enthusiasm onto their students, but they were a few exceptional cases. Unfortunately, I have yet to meet a female general primary teacher (one that has to teach the whole spectrum of subjects within her class) who has the scientific knowledge and capability to confidently teach her students, to encourage critical thinking and to foster enquiry learning. One teacher in particular, who was teaching a mixed-age class of students from Year Three to Year Six in a small rural school, openly admitted that her science knowledge was virtually non-existent and that her own mathematical ability was only at a Year Two level at best. I’m sure you will understand why behind my smile through gritted teeth at this revelation, they were scenes in my head is of a public hanging in the town square while silently screaming, “What the hell makes you think you should be teaching these children?”

Teachers like this one, who was obviously comfortable in a small school, earning a decent salary for very little work, would be stifling a child’s education rather than growing it. They are the sort of people that are too egocentric to think to themselves, “You know what? I think I should be doing something else instead. I think I should leave the education of these children to somebody far better qualified than me.” Luckily, in the situation of this particular school and teacher, there was a Principal and an education assistant who took over as the science teacher for the students every week. It was also fortunate for the students that the Principal was able to take over a math lesson once a week and that the education assistance assigned to the class, me, was able to provide the maths help that the students needed for the rest of the week. Regularly to the point where I would take the Year Fives and Year Sixes into another classroom to teach them while the teacher who should have been responsible for their education was left to try and assist the Year Threes and Fours.

Fortunately for the children, and the school, there is to be a change in the teaching structure from 2019 where this teacher in question has now been moved within the school to teach the kindergarten children. Read into that what you will.

Regardless of my amazement that this teacher actually passed a university degree where her maths and science abilities should have been tested to a far higher standard than they obviously were, it proves my point that had she received a better education in these two subjects while at school herself, her knowledge and abilities would have been greater and she would have been a far better provider of education for the students in her charge as a teacher. This education then has a knock-on effect when those students then go on to have a genuine interest and passion for learning because of the confident teacher they had; one who could pass on that passion.

As a general primary teacher myself now, and one who specialises in teaching science, I love the fact that we are moving away from teacher centre classrooms towards student centred classrooms, although I am hoping that it stops somewhere in the middle. I am a great proponent of fostering creative thinking and for encouraging hands-on learning not just in science but across all subject areas. It is through the adage of ‘learning by doing’ that we again realise that it should be front and centre of our teaching. And if you are teaching science or any lesson for that matter, make sure your students get that ‘WOW’ factor every day. Sometimes you have to throw out those boring textbooks and easy lessons that lots of teachers reach for (I’m not even going to mention the lessons found on Pinterest or the like), especially in science. Visiting other schools I have lost count of, and get increasingly more frustrated with, seeing wheat seeds germinating in a plastic cup, seeing slices of bread in Ziploc bags going mouldy at the back of the class, or seeing polystyrene models of the solar system hanging from the ceiling. It gets done every year, the students see it every year, and get more and more bored with it every year. In High School, it’s no wonder girls get scared away from science when you hear the screams emanating from a class that has to dissect another frog. Bring something different to your class, and you’ll bring something different to your students’ lives.

Here are a couple of examples for you. When explaining forces, the school down the road to ours would roll a toy car down a ramp of varying angles and see how far ball of Blu-tack would be thrown from the car. The outcome? The boys loved playing with the cars in general, let alone what science is being learned, while the girls are bored out of their heads and are letting the boys do all the work. In my class, we took over a spare room and built a complex Rube Goldberg machine from wall-to-wall throughout the whole term, with the class divided into groups and each group having the responsibility of building three sections of the machine. Only after the students came up with their own ideas for each section did we look at the forces involved and have a short explanation on the forces and their application before the students were able to learn by experimentation. Girls and boys were engaged alike, and I can guarantee we had a lot more fun than the school down the road.

While the school down the road put a balloon over a bottle of vinegar and bicarbonate of soda to watch the balloon expand by an inch, and a teacher struggle to explain why the expansion occurred, I purchased 10 L of liquid nitrogen and our experiments on the expansion and contraction of gases was far more obvious and visual and provided the ‘WOW’ factor I was speaking of earlier. We froze lettuce leaves, shattered bananas and cucumbers, saw our breath in liquid form in a balloon that had been dipped in liquid nitrogen and even culminated in the ultimate gas expansion experiment for children, dropping a bottle of liquid nitrogen into being filled with water and 2000 ping-pong balls. I’m sure that the ‘WOW’ was even heard by the school down the road. The point is that while both schools learned by doing, the other school did the same experiment as the year before, and the year before, whereas I challenged their understanding, expanded their inquiry knowledge, used Socratic learning techniques and gave them something they spoke about for years to come.

So give your students the encouragement to explore and enjoy the sciences. Give the girls the role models as incentives to show that it’s not just men in geeky glasses and white lab coats who work to find answers. It’s not just the picture of Marie Curie that you put on the whiteboard to show that women can be famous scientists. It’s YOU, standing in front of the class, passionate about the subject you are teaching, able to foster critical thinking and enquiry, that is going to show that average people like them and you can love science. Because, even though they may not all pursue a career in science, that critical thinking ability and the passion for learning will stay with them. But even more important, the chances are that more than one girl in your class will want to become a teacher when she is older. How amazing will it be, for her future students to feel that same passion and encouragement, knowing that you put it there rather than killed the possibility before it even existed because you didn’t know what you are talking about, and stunted your student’s education?

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