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We need more girls. Over the past 15 years, the global community has invested a lot of effort in engaging and encouraging females to actively participate in science-related industries, however, the current numbers are not promising.

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly declared 11th February the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The objective of this day is to celebrate females who are leading innovation, at the same time, to create awareness for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in science.

What else can we do? How can Malaysian parents find more inspiration for their daughters?

Photo credit: Linda Liukas Instagram

Parents will be thrilled to know that there is an organisation like Rail Girls KL to introduce women and girls to the world of coding. Inspired by the work of Linda Liukas, one of the founders of Rail Girls, the Kuala Lumpur chapter is part of a global network that teaches women and girls programming.

An inspiring figure, Liukas also authored Hello Ruby, a whimsical children’s book about the world of computers. She founded Rail Girls in Finland with Karri Saarinen in 2010. They aim to make technology and computer programming more accessible and approachable to girls. With a presence in more than 300 cities, the movement is fast gaining momentum.

Rails Girls KL was founded by Malaysians Sher Minn and Wunmin Wong back in 2017. Both now reside overseas and the current organising committee consists of Lindy Lim and Michelle Ler.

Lim is a recent A-Levels graduate who is continously seeking to improve her programming skills. Ler is currently pursuing a computer science degree. They organise free workshops that cover an introduction to technology, basic programming, sketching and prototyping. Considering they are actually volunteers with Rail Girls, their efforts are incredibly inspiring! These workshops are conducted with support from sponsors and experts from the industry who act as mentors to participants.

Lindy Lim (in blue) mentoring the girls in a 2018 workshop. Photo credit: Rails Girls KL Facebook.

Some of the past programmes they have conducted include collaborations with Women Who Code in 2017 and 2018 for the Hour of Code. The workshop was aimed at youth from ages seven to 17. Rails Girls KL also organised a workshop called Ruby on Rails in 2018 which attracted over 140 applicants! Unfortunately, due to limited space, they had to limit the number of participants to 60. The youngest was 16 years of age and the oldest being in her 50s!

2019 Coding events by Rail Girls KL – Come one, come all!

  1. March/April: Rails Girls will be partnering with mapping tech company HERE Technologies to conduct a workshop on JavaScript which will be open to all ages.
  2. June: School holidays workshop targeted at teenagers aged 13 to 17.
  3. December: Hour of Code workshop in collaboration with Women Who Code and Google developers. This workshop will be targeted at younger audiences.

Details of the events above are unconfirmed. Do follow Rails Girls KL on Facebook for further information.

Why coding?

As science and technology continue to permeate every aspect of our lives, being digitally literate is becoming more of a basic necessity.  In the simplest definition, coding is about developing a series of commands for the computer to follow. Imagine having that skill at your fingertips, the possibilities are endless!

Even if your child may not end up with a tech-related career, learning to code offers a lot of other advantages:

  1. It improves critical thinking and problem solving – When a child codes, they break down a complex problem into smaller, more manageable parts. This encourages logical and computational thinking.  According to Dr. Dan Crow, Chief Technology Officer of Songkick, computational thinking “will help you understand and master technology of all sorts and solve problems in almost any discipline.”
  2. It encourages creativity – By giving simple commands to the computer, kids are encouraged to experiment with various outcomes. This will inspire the child to be more curious, question assumptions and hopefully gain more confidence to explore their creativity.
  3. It develops resilience –  Plenty of things can go wrong when you code. But what better way to build perseverance than working through the challenges faced. Coding teaches kids to be resilient in dealing with failures and to see that it is not necessarily a bad thing. Instead, it can be an opportunity to learn and simply bounce back.

If your child is too young to attend coding classes or workshops, you can always nurture the interest and start with STEM toys. Provide the opportunity for your daughters (and sons) to learn about technology and the way computers work. Hopefully, this will give them an advantage later on in life.

 

In a survey conducted by the Royal Institution’s L’Oreal Young Scientist Centre in 2012, half of the children interviewed found STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects too difficult or boring. Too many kids quit because they don’t think that they are smart enough to learn STEM or that it is only relevant to jobs in medicine.

This mindset among young children is certainly worrying. We need children to be excited about science, and it’s best to start them early. Here’s why and how.

It’s Even Worse for Girls

Let’s talk about the numbers.

According to data collected by UNESCO, between 2014- 2016, only 30 percent of female students would choose science-related subjects in higher education. The number of girls choosing to enroll in Information, Communication Technology (ICT) is the lowest, at 3 percent. With many predicting the highest growth in computer-related jobs in the next 10 years, and 90 percent of future jobs requiring skills in ICT, the situation looks rather bleak.

It is not surprising that great efforts have been made to allow equal access, and to encourage more girls and women to participate fully in science. It is why we celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science, every year, on February 11th.

5 Ways Kids Learn Through Play

Children learn best through play. This has been proven, many times over, in different studies, over the years. While not all types of play is learning, we should look at 5 defining characteristics when we talk about playful learning experiences

1.   Kids should be having fun.

Surprisingly, they also learn better if things do not go as planned. An example are toys that ‘react’ in ways children do not expect.

2.   They should connect new information to their own experiences.

For example, my son could recite the numbers 1 to 10 by the time he was 2. It took him longer to understand when I asked him to get only three pieces of candy for himself.

3.  Their learning is hands-on, and they continue to focus, through distractions.

4.  They repeat their exercise.

When they try different things with their toys and getting different results, they can understand a new concept on a deeper level.

5.  They play with others.

Studies have shown that kids playing with their peers build larger and more complex structures, than when their play is “directed” by adults.

How To Encourage Science with STEM toys

We know toys are beloved by kids and fun, but STEM toys also allow kids to explore STEM-related concepts and help develop their problem-solving skills.

We asked Janie & Joe, voted Best Toy Store in Malaysia and winner of Parents’ Choice Awards in 2018, to help us choose some great and educational STEM toys for young kids. Here are some of their recommendations:

1. Learning Resources’ Gears! Gears! Gears! and Engineering and Design Series

Purdue University’s INSPIRE Research Institute for Pre-College Engineering compiles the Engineering Gift Guide every year. These toys help kids explore concepts in engineering thinking and design. The first two below were in the guide, but you could start even earlier with the 100-piece Deluxe Building Set, which can help introduce simple concepts of sorting and grouping.Gears! Gears! Gears! Machines in Motion

Age: 4+

Price: RM 199.00

Playground Engineering and Design Building Set

Age: 5+

Price: RM 149.90Gear! Gears! Gears! 100-piece Deluxe Building Set

Age: 3+

Price: RM 139.90

2. Coding with Botley, the Coding Robot, and Code & Go Robot Mouse

Both Botley, and Colby, were also featured in the 2018 Engineering Gift Guide. These toys introduce coding concepts to kids in simple and fun ways. With Colby, children start by building a maze, then program sequences for the mouse to chase the cheese. With Botley, children need to enter instructions on a remote control to move it around obstacles.

Code & Go Robot Mouse Activity Set

Age: 4+

Price: RM 349.90Botley 77-piece Activity Set

Age: 5+

Price: RM 499.90

3. Design & Drill Series

If you are looking for toys that will help develop hand-eye coordination and strengthen motor skills, these ones could be for you. They also encourage problem solving, patterning, and design skills.  While some girls might prefer the Flower Power Studio, the My First Workbench is gender-neutral and Brightworks allows them to make incredible, glow-in-the-dark creations.
Design & Drill Flower Power Studio

Age: 3+

Price: RM 199.90Design & Drill My First Workbench

Age: 3+

Price: RM 299.90Design & Drill Brightworks

Age: 3+

Price: RM 229.90

4. Nancy B’s Science Club Series – the Crime Stopper Scope and the Forensic Activity Journal

Nancy B’s Science Club Series is the brainchild of a former science teacher, and specifically designed to encourage girls to see the fun in science. A winner of the Parents’ Choice Recommended Award in 2013, the Crime Solver Scope and the Forensic Activity Journal is perfect for older girls who love to solve mysteries. It teaches young sleuths the finer points of crime investigation, such as the study of fingerprints and the difference between human hair and fibres.Nancy B’s Science Club Crime Solver Scope

Age: 8+

Price: RM 99.90

5. BrainBox Series

In 2018, Academics’ Choice Awards listed the BrainBox series as great buys for kids ages 7 and up. This timed, fast-paced memory game encourages kids to improve their observation skills, while introducing relevant facts in a fun way. There are many different topics you could choose, but we would recommend the BrainBox Maths, developed by a primary school teacher with 30 years of experience; and BrainBox Science, which covers important topics such as life cycles, the human body and plants.Brain Box Maths

Age: 7+

Price: RM 79.90Brain Box Science

Age: 7+

Price: RM 79.90

[All the toys listed here, are available for purchase from their store, in Bangsar Village, and their online store, at https://www.janieandjoe.com.]

Parents Can Do More Than Just Buying The ‘Right’ Toys For Their Kids

Don’t just stop at the toys, parents. The most important quality we could nurture in our kids is curiosity. Even Einstein said: “The most important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

Encourage your children to ask the right questions which will help them arrive at the answers on their own.

Avoid trying to take over, and provide all the answers.

When they do get it right, try and praise the “process”, rather than the achievement itself. This is even more important when it comes to girls. Studies have shown that mothers and teachers are more likely to praise boys on this “process” (e.g. their hard work and focus) than girls. We need to be mindful not to do the same to our daughters.

Learning science should be more than about answering questions in a test. It is about paying attention to the world around you, asking questions, testing your theories, and making changes and improvements when you fail.

It requires bravery, focus and perseverance. These are the qualities you would want your kids to have, in preparation for a future that is filled with uncertainties, and a world that is constantly, and rapidly changing.

By Najmin Tajuddin

Over the past 15 years, Najmin worked as a management consultant, ran a community-supported agriculture (CSA) programme out of an integrated goat farm, and helped manage an equine centre. A biologist by training, this mum of three (5 to 13 years old) now has all her kids in school. She wants to spend more time reading, writing and gardening, and sharing her discovery of fun local places at Mums of Makchic.

In conjunction with International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Janie&Joe is offering a 10% discount to makchic readers! Promotion is applicable on their online store (voucher code JJMAKCHIC) and at their physical store in Bangsar Village II (just mention the makchic website to their staff). Valid from Saturday, 9th February to Monday, 11th February 2019 and excludes items already on sales/other promotions. Complimentary gift wrapping services are available to both online and physical store purchases.

When I was growing up, taking advanced science programmes in a Malaysian high school was not really a choice. If you did well in your exams, the school would nudge you into the science stream. You would study Biology, Chemistry and Physics. If you didn’t, well – into the arts stream you go.

It was not because you showed great interest in science. Instead, it was done for purely practical reasons. To put it simply, you showed you could handle the academic rigor associated with the subjects.

Things have not changed much, since I was in school 20 years ago. It wasn’t until recently, that I realised what I experienced growing up, was a social conditioning that was pervasive – That science was only possible for those with innate intelligence.

I didn’t realise that a “growth mindset”, in which your abilities and intelligence are not fixed, but can be developed through hard work and guided instruction, is not only essential, but also crucial, in the pursuit of science.

Bias Against Girls in Science Starts Early

It is no secret that women are underrepresented in science. The numbers bear this out, with a recent report by the Women in Science & Engineering (WISE) campaign in the UK, stating that women accounts for only 24% of the workforce in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (or STEM) careers. Huge tech companies in the US hire very few women, because only 12% of women did degrees in computer science.

The theories behind this disparity are many, but it pretty much boils down to this: clear bias against girls has always been present, since a very young age.

• Toy makers reinforce bias, with boys often given more complex and active toys, and girls given simpler and passive ones.

• Parents are more likely to encourage independent thinking from boys. Boys are usually praised as “clever and brave” and girls as “hard workers.” This is likely to feed into the biased perception that the intelligence required for science is for boys.

• Teachers’ biased behaviors in schools have long-term implication for enrollment of girls in advanced science programmes in high school. A study showed that when girls and boys were graded anonymously, the girls would outperform the boys. However, when their teachers graded them, boys’ performances were overrated and girls were often underestimated. This would go on to shape their attitude towards the subjects.

I have 2 young girls, and my eldest is now 12. Science is currently one of her favourite subjects. But, studies have shown that the critical age range for girls’ participation in science is between the ages of 11-14. Knowing the pitfalls that might discourage her from pursuing science, should she want to, is important to me.

Making a Difference for Your Daughters

(1) Teach your girls to be brave

Recently, I came across a term called “bravery deficit”. It tried to explain that the bravery deficit in girls might explain why there are so few women in STEM. We often teach our girls to be perfect and to avoid making mistakes. Not enough of us are teaching them to be brave. This impact them negatively- girls are less likely to speak up and answer in class discussions, because they do not want to look stupid if they get them wrong.

The nature of doing science is that you are not likely to get all the right answers on your first try. But girls’ aversion to risks is a mindset that must be changed. I try to do this for my daughters by reinforcing the notion that it is okay to fail, every time they face a setback. That the efforts they put in and the lessons they learned during the process are more important.

(2) Encourage opportunities for learning

When I worked on an organic farm, I tried to create opportunities for my daughters to connect to the land and learn new things. They have helped with the planting, the weeding and harvesting the produce on the patch. We have created gardens together. While this is not possible for everyone, looking for opportunities to engage your daughters could be done through as simple activities as walking in a park together during the weekends.

If you would rather keep it indoors and struggle to think of activities that could work for your children, you could give the subscription box called Atom & the Dot a try. Each month, a box filled with materials and instructions could be sent to your door and could assist you in engaging your children in suitable Arts & Science- related activities.

(3) Introduce Female Role Models

When young girls are not seeing women scientists doing great things, this will only strengthen their perception that science is for boys. I tried to change this by introducing them to books and media that place women scientists front and centre.

You could highlight great women scientists such as Jane Goodall, Marie Curie, Hedy Lamarr, Ada Lovelace, Chien-Shiung Wu and Katherine Johnson. And you could do this in various ways.

• Introducing them through books

For the younger readers, you could try Fiona Robinson’s Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer, Dean Robbins’ Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Moon Landing, Brad Meltzer’s I am Jane, Jess Keating’s Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist and Catherine Thimmesh & Melissa Sweet’s Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women.

For the older readers, books that came highly recommended include Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers who Changed the World and Jim Ottaviani & Maris Wick’s Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey & Birute Galdikas.

Introducing them through Media

While many parents are cautious about the use of social media platforms for their children, it can be a powerful tool in providing suitable role models. On YouTube, you could try subscribing to SciShow Kids and Science with Sophie. Both have female educators, presenting science in a very fun way.

 

In the end, while the world at large might work against girls’ participation in science, we could still affect change as parents; by sparking their curiosity and by actively nurturing their interests in the world around them.

Our daughters should view the world as full of possibilities. We should help them develop the growth mindset, that knowledge and abilities could be achieved through sheer hard work. They might not end up doing science when they grow older, but, at least, they will have the option to pursue it, should they choose to.

 

By Najmin Tajudin

A biologist by training, Najmin has worked as a management consultant, took the Early Childhood Course in Montessori Theory and Methodology, and ran a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program out of an integrated goat farm. With all 3 kids finally in school, Najmin is looking forward to spending more time on reading books and writing.