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The STEM Girl Awakens

"Examples of gender inequity are abundant in school texts and children’s books and movies, classroom experiences, exposure to science toys, and other science-related experiences."
- The Franklin Institute

I've been a Star Wars fan for a long time.  In fact, it was my first movie experience I can remember.  Darth Vader entering the Tantive IV. So it was with great pleasure that I really liked The Force Awakens.  After seeing the film, I felt the need to write about it.  But not about the Physics of the Starkiller Base, but something much more real world.  The part of the film that brought me the greatest joy was seeing a the Return of the Heroine to Star Wars.

Rey (last name? Skywalker? Solo? Episode VIII you're my only hope) is the type of hero boys have been getting for ages.  Heroes who have no problems fending for themselves, learning new skills on their own, and demonstrating these skills.  Think James Bond, Indiana Jones, Robert Langdon, the action heroes played by anyone in the Expendible movies.  

When we first me Rey, she is masked and we can't be sure if this person is a male or female.  But she navigates the ruins of a Star Destroyer with easy as she show tech savvy scavenging the wreck of spare parts to support herself.  

Spoiler Alert for the Force Awakens. She does not need to be lead by hand from danger.  She can pilot the Millennium Falcon. She can wield a lightsaber as well as a blaster. She can make major repairs to the Falcon while in flight. She is a STEM girl through and through.  

Watching the film and seeing this wonderful role model for STEM girls made me want to reread some of the current research on girls and STEM and address my classroom practices. 
I read many great pieces which I'll reference below, but the most accessible and meaningful one to me was The most meaningful piece I read was Cascading Influences: Long-Term Impacts of Informal STEM Experiences for Girls presented by The Franklin Institute. What follows is a reflection of this specific reading.

How do we know there is an issue?  Girls' beliefs about their ability to participate and contribute to science shows a clear confidence gap.  Also, the importance of science careers to their lives this show a clear interest gap.  Finally, once a STEM spark has been ignited there is  a lack of programs available to let the spark burn bright showing a clear access gap.

Memories of STEM experiences are critical for all girls.  These experiences create an interest in science but also add to the stories of their lives.  These experiences include engaging in hands-on activities, field trips, and practice of specific skills.  These experiences involve a network of individuals who include mentors and peers creating a shared experience. So, we need to integrate these experiences into our teaching where girls are empowered to take charge, teach each other, and learn authentic science skills and practices.

There seems to be a narrow view of what STEM careers look like.  This flows down to what STEM interactions look like as well.  This narrow view needs to be broadened.  We should expand our understanding of STEM activities and careers.  Looking at activities and careers that build on STEM knowledge and use STEM skills.

STEM activities can't be isolated to the classroom.  They need to provide authentic community connections.  This ties in to the idea of creating these lasting memories and broadening the cope of what STEM means.  STEM careers don't all require safety googles.

Beyond this, STEM careers aren't the only goals of STEM education.  All students can benefit from the practices and skills in a STEM classroom.  In order to make this possible and powerful, we need to understand the girls in our classroom and have a purpose behind "why" we are attempting to incorporate STEM education.

It's troubling to see the criticisms of Rey in popular media. She has been called a " Mary Sue" character (fan fiction version of an all powerful heroine). Living in a world full of all powerful male superheroes, it's nice to see a girl who is skilled in more than just the ability to do battle. She can use her brain and hands to do real things that don't have to be fantasy. Read more about this debate in Tasha Robinson's wonderful essay:

It is my hope that STEM girls like Rey will start a spark in the girls, it is up to educators to provide some fuel to that fire.

Further Readings

Bamberger, Yael M. "Encouraging Girls into Science and Technology with Feminine Role Model: Does This Work?" Journal of Science Education and Technology J Sci Educ Technol 23.4 (2014): 549-61. Print.
"Bridging the Gap by Enhancing the Fit: How Stereotypes about STEM Clash with Stereotypes about Girls | Kessels | International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology." Bridging the Gap by Enhancing the Fit: How Stereotypes about STEM Clash with Stereotypes about Girls | Kessels | International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology. Web. 26 Dec. 2015.
Bystydzienski, Jill M., Margaret Eisenhart, and Monica Bruning. "High School Is Not Too Late: Developing Girls' Interest and Engagement in Engineering Careers." The Career Development Quarterly 63.1 (2015): 88-95. Print.
Chen, Peiyao, Faedra Lazar Weiss, and Heather Johnston Nicholson. "Girls Study Girls Inc.: Engaging Girls in Evaluation Through Participatory Action Research." American Journal of Community Psychology Am J Community Psychol 46.1-2 (2010): 228-37. Print.
Chen, Peiyao, Faedra Lazar Weiss, and Heather Johnston Nicholson. "Girls Study Girls Inc.: Engaging Girls in Evaluation Through Participatory Action Research." American Journal of Community Psychology Am J Community Psychol 46.1-2 (2010): 228-37. Print.
Eavis, Katie, Katie Eavis, and Simon Schofield. "Engaging Girls." Print.
"Girls in IT: The Facts." National Center for Women & Information Technology. Web. 26 Dec. 2015.

Shapiro, Jenessa R., and Amy M. Williams. "The Role of Stereotype Threats in Undermining Girls’ and Women’s Performance and Interest in STEM Fields." Sex Roles 66.3-4 (2011): 175-83. Print.

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