Yesterday I had a lovely and fascinating interview with Paul Grossi, a teacher at The Girls Middle School in Palo Alto. It’s an all-girls middle school (obviously) and they’re doing some really great stuff with less-traditional teaching methods, meaning there’s a lot less of a teacher standing in front of a classroom lecturing. We talked about so much different stuff that I’m gonna have to divide it into more than one post. This one will be about how younger girls learn science. Because there’s such a huge gender gap in the hard sciences, it’s really important for teachers to understand that girls do learn science differently from boys, and then adapt their teaching methods. The only way to close the gender gap (which, as a woman in the sciences, I think is crucial) is to start early.
My favorite thing that Paul said to me about this was “Anything can become interesting for any kid if you open the right door.” Girls are not innately bad at science (of course they’re not, that would be a groundless and sexist assumption), but in this society we’re raised differently, in a way that can make some scientific subjects less intuitive. One of the explanations that Paul offered for this is that boys play harder than girls at young ages – they have what he called “intuitive kinematic experiences” from play, and many girls have to be taught that kind of intuition if they weren’t into sports or if they didn’t romp as much. For similar reasons, girls approach the scientific method differently. The scientific method is about playing around and seeing what happens, and in Paul’s experience, girls need more encouragement to do that – they’re used to following guidelines, to having steps to go through, whereas boys are culturally more willing to mess around with an experiment until something happens.
Although girls do tend to be “rule-followers,” as Paul put it (although maybe some of us follow less rules than others), they also need to learn in a more in-depth way than many boys: “boys will simply accept something to be true, but girls want to know how it’s relevant.” One of the things that Paul and The Girls’ Middle School are working on is teaching these young girls to be scientific thinkers. Like Paul says, “science isn’t just a collection of knowledge” – it’s about worldview, not canon. Anyone can know the Krebs Cycle, but scientific thinkers have a drive to understand the world around us. To do this, Paul makes sure that as much of the material as possible is taught in a way that’s hands-on, relevant, and interesting, and absolutely not dumbed-down at all. In order to be a science thinker, you have to learn how to glean the lesson of a mistake, and simply following the standards isn’t the best way to do that.
I know that for me personally, middle school was a major turning point in terms of my interest in science. I had one teacher, Matt Casey, who absolutely inspired me, and now I’m studying physics in college. It’s that simple. I think Paul is definitely one of those teachers who inspires these kids to pursue an interest in science further on, and that is what it’s all about. We need to work hard to keep kids, especially girls, engaged in grade school so that they get to high school excited about science (or at least not dreading it). As Paul told me, once that switch is turned off, it’s nearly impossible to turn it back on – how many people do you know who hated math in middle school but love it now? We need scientific thinkers as citizens of the world and as voters in this nation, and inspiring them young is the way to do it.
Aaaand that’s all for now! I’ll write more in my next post about the gender gap and why we need more awesome lady scientists.