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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. 

When you think of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, your mind probably conjures up images of little scientists pouring coloured liquids into beakers from Erlenmeyer flasks, or teeny bespectacled maths geniuses scribbling equations onto a blackboard.

The reality is though, that most STEM learning occurs outside the classroom. This article in The Conversation suggests the learning doesn’t need to stop once school is out. Your kids (and you) can keep learning at home by providing opportunities to deepen engagement with STEM.

Here are some things you can do at home with your little ones to show them how science happens in everyday life:

Bring science week home

Do your homework as a parent and have various science-themed activities at home. Spend a weekend making papier-mâché planets, take a trip to the National Planetarium and in the evening, wind down with a family space-themed movie (2001: A Space Odyssey, anyone?) During the week, weather permitting, head outside for some stargazing and identify the constellations.

If space feels too out of this world, dive deep into the seas while keeping your feet dry (if you want) by taking a trip to Aquaria KLCC. If you have a fish tank, get on the Internet together to find out about these aquatic friends. Younger kids would delight in Disney favourites Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, and you can use the opportunity to talk about conservation and ocean pollution.

Build them up

Children of all ages learn by doing – so why not use an old familiar to teach them about the world around them? Use Lego or other blocks to teach them about architecture, building stability and surface area. Kids close in age could undertake building challenges like creating the tallest tower. Pique the interest of older kids by trying your hand at technical Lego with moving parts. Use the opportunity to talk to them about mechanics. And besides your end product with the bricks, you also build family rapport, resilience and concentration.

Create a collection

Collections aren’t just for purveyors of fine art and scrapbooks aren’t just for hardcore crafters who roam the aisles of Spotlight. Kids of all ages can have a go and your collections can be as large or small as you like.

Start a scrapbook about the types of leaves you can find in your neighbourhood. Write down interesting facts about the trees – Is the coconut a fruit, seed or a nut? As you walk around collecting leaves, talk to your kids about how trees release oxygen, and about photosynthesis.

If you want to leaf leave that train of thought, why not tailor it to your circumstances – if you’re on a seaside holiday, collect different shells or feathers? Or bust out your old point-and-shoot cameras for the kids to take photos of clouds. Talk about the different formations they see. The possibilities are endless.

Experiment at home

Over school holidays, don’t just give in to the temptation to give kids free rein over screens. Encourage them to get their hands dirty with safe at-home science experiments. We can’t tell you how much we love these kits from Atom & the Dot which provide you with everything you need to learn about a particular theme. Pinterest is also a great source of fun at-home experiments.

If you’ve got older kids, why not introduce them to the weird and wonderful world of MythBusters (yes, we know that technically reverts back to screen time … but it’s educational!) and try some of their tested Do Try This At Home experiments?

 

Science is all around us. From our human bodies – ‘How do our feet support our weight and physical activities like jumping  without breaking?’ – to the plants growing in the garden, there’s so much to marvel at. 

Ultimately, one of the best science teachers your kids could have is you. You don’t have to hold a PhD in microbiology or astronomy to encourage your kids to be curious. Don’t know the answer to a question? Commit to finding out together – that’s what the Internet is for. Thank you, science!

 

By Faye Song

Faye Song is a former journalist now working in marketing and communications. She lives in Darwin, where she enjoys the best of Southeast Asia (the food and night markets) and Australia (the workday that ends punctually at 4.21pm), with her husband, toddler and small dog.

 

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Squeals of excitement would be the best way to describe the reaction from Alex when he discovered what was in the mysterious box of goodies that had arrived. We tore open the bubble wrap and packaging. He was delighted to see his name on the top of the box.

When we opened it, the first thing we saw was the ‘playbook’ with all the instructions of the activities in store. The booklet opens with a fun riddle. For each game, experiment or task, there is a quick visual reference about how long it takes to prep the task, how much adult involvement is required and how messy the activity will be. I definitely scanned through this quickly to decide which ones we could do there and then, and which ones we needed to save for later.

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After that there are clear visuals of the materials needed and step-by-step guides on how to assemble the items. Because all of the props are separated in packages of various size, colour, label and material, it’s a bit like Christmas opening all these up!

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The theme of Alex’s box was air, and so he learnt a lot about air pressure with a series of seemingly simple but nevertheless mind-blowing (eyes agog at the discovery!) experiments involving tubes, bottles, balloons, food colouring, plasticine and straws. His favourite prop by far was the dropper, because obviously, all scientists need to have their own droppers.

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All in all?

Some activities took 20 minutes, while others were done in less than one. All in all, I would say there was a couple of hours’ worth of engagement here, with opportunities for expansion if you supplement this with Internet research, books or videos on the topic.

As a parent who isn’t very DIY when it comes to hands-on learning with my child, Atom & The Dot is a godsend, and I would’ve signed up immediately for a year’s subscription, except they don’t do international shipping at the moment.

For those of you in Malaysia, however, I highly recommend Atom & The Dot if you have a 5-8 year old that you want to give a present to, whether it’s your own child, or niece or for a birthday party you’re going to. It’s pretty much guaranteed to be a fun learning experience for everyone involved.

What we like:  They even have a recycling programme for all the bits and bobs in the boxes – that’s what you want to see in any company working in the 21st century economy.

What could be improved? One suggestion I would make to Atom & The Dot is to include references to find out more about the topic.

 

Rating: ★★★★★

 

By Uma.

Uma is a Malaysian mum who works in teacher education. She has a six-year-old son, Alex, and currently lives in Singapore. 

 

Pictures from Atom & The Dot