Category Archives: STEM outreach

things to get kids interested in STEM fields, and STEM education

Glaringly Awful Example of How Early the Gender Gap in STEM Starts

So apparently the Carnegie Science Center of Pittsburgh is stuck in 1950.  An awesome facepalm moment was realized in the form of their recent STEM workshop offerings for kids in scouting.

Their workshop offerings to Boy Scouts: Chemistry, Cub Scout science, Webelos Scientist, Webelos Engineering, Engineering, Astronomy, Cub Scout Weather, Robotics. Their workshop offerings to Girl Scouts: Science With a Sparkle. Where they learn about the chemistry involved in – wait for it – cosmetics.  Yep, cool stuff and lots of options for the boys, makeup for the girls.  And no, the girls are not allowed to attend any of the workshops for boys.

Way to go, guys.  Carnegie Science Center’s excuse was that they didn’t get any signups from troops when they offered the same courses for girls and that they had to make the name of the class something that would appeal to girls.  Why on earth do science workshops need to be gender-segregated?  Um… how about a schedule of workshops simply for ‘scouts’, geniuses?   Then you could include Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Camp Fire kids, Navigators, SpiralScouts, Pathfinders, etc.

Read the Jezebel article here for more info.  Actual course descriptions below.


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Filed under Equality, Opinion pieces, STEM outreach

Choose your words carefully. Act with awareness. Girls are listening and watching, and the message isn’t good.

Sexism can be very subtle.  I love this commercial because it shows just how that subtle sexism sinks into the subconscious of little girls.  For every generic and chipper, “You can do anything!” a little girl hears, she gets a thousand comments, social cues, and media images that tell her otherwise.  So watch your words and actions – we’re probably all guilty of at least a few of these:

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Gateway drugs – er, I mean books and movies – to sci-fi, fantasy, and speculative fiction of all kinds

One of the panel topics I’ve addressed at cons is how to get kids interested in sci-fi, fantasy, and all related things that make us geek out and that we find squee-worthy.  Well, other than the fact that all of us at those kinds of panels already think all those things are super cool, and that tech folks and engineers tend to make more money than the average bear, I usually try to point out the mainstream things that kids love that are already in their lives and actually fall into the broad ‘geek stuff’ categories of sci-fi, fantasy, alternate history, speculative fiction, etc.  These ‘gateway drugs’ are often the best way to bring kids into the fold.

What do I mean?  Well, some of the biggest blockbusters in kids, YA and adult fiction and movies are actually pretty darned geeky.  Check out this list, for example:

  • Harry Potter (fantasy/paranormal – full of magic and mythical creatures)
  • Golden Compass (more fantasy and a little steampunk/sci-fi)
  • Divergent (post-apocalyptic/dystopian fiction)
  • Narnia books and movies (fantasy)
  • Hunger Games (decidedly post-apocalyptic/dystopian fiction)
  • Twilight (fantasy/paranormal)
  • Ender’s Game (solidly sci-fi – and it’s the number one book I’ve ever recommended to get kids into sci-fi)
  • A Wrinkle in Time (definitely sci-fi with a little paranormal thrown in)
  • The Giver (post-apocalyptic/dystopian)
  • Percy Jackson series (fantasy)
  • Wild Wild West (steampunk – and I’m probably dating myself by putting it on here)
  • Heroes (fantasy/paranormal)
  • X-Men (paranormal/sci-fi)
  • All the superhero movies such as Spiderman, Avengers, etc. (comics, sci-fi, fantasy/paranormal)
  • Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (fantasy)
  • TMNT and pretty much any cartoon involving space, aliens, mutants, evil scientists, etc.
  • Star Wars (duh)
  • Despicable Me (sci-fi – no, really!)
  • Mary Poppins (paranormal)
  • How to Train Your Dragon (fantasy)
  • Godzilla (sci-fi/fantasy)
  • Transformers (sci-fi/alternate history)
  • Avatar (sci-fi)
  • I, Robot (sci-fi)
  • Aliens (sci-fi/horror)
  • Men in Black (sci-fi/comedy)
  • The Matrix (sci-fi/dystopian/post-apocalyptic)
  • World War Z (and pretty much all zombie moves – sci-fi/paranormal/dystopian)

This list is by no means exclusive – it’s just a quick list off the top of my head of the things that have been wildly successful in the mainstream that people don’t even realize fall solidly into the genres traditionally considered ‘geeky.’  And that’s without even looking at the world of gaming.  If you want to get a kid interested in geekdom, find out what he or she likes – and then gradually introduce similar things to expand his or her horizons.

For example, my daughter currently loves Invader Zim and Wall-E, which is branching out to a general love of robots thanks to GIR and Wall-E.  And she adores Our Neighbor Totoro, so I’m hoping she will also take a liking to Kiki’s Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle in the future.

Also, as a side note I just realized that Will Smith actually does an awful lot of sci-fi.

What’s missing from my list?  How do you get kids interested in geek stuff without driving them away with un-cool-ness?




Filed under Geek parenting resources, Geeking out, STEM outreach

STEM Can Be For Everyone – Sometimes You Just Need a Different Approach

It’s been ten years since I graduated from college.  I am nowhere near where I thought I’d be – and for that I am eternally grateful.  Call it fate, or providence, or karma, or coincidence, whatever you want to believe in.  Whatever it is, I’m truly happy my path has turned out the way it has.  The biggest thing I’ve learned is that it’s never too late and a lot more people are cut out for STEM fields than think they are.

Many young people turn away from possible futures because they think it’s too late for something to happen in their lives, or that they’re not smart enough or strong enough.  This is, sadly, especially true for people who might be interested in STEM fields.

Young people start out with pretty good parity in math and science.  But by junior high, something unfortunate has happened and many girls (and sometimes boys as well) have decided  – or, more often, been told – that they aren’t any good at math or science.  They focus on other things rather than try again at something they either once failed at or were told they couldn’t do.  They forget they wanted to be an astronaut or a programmer or a dentist.  More and more people are having second, even third careers now.  They don’t expect to stay in the same place or do the same thing.  So remember that it’s never too late to try out a STEM field.

You may feel hopelessly behind or lost in math or science, but they key is to try it from another angle.  I was always a math whiz as a kid, except in two cases.  First, geometry.  I just didn’t get it.  It made no sense to me.  I muddled through somehow with lots of extra work and frustration and managed a B-.  It was the worst grade I got in my entire life until college.

Then in college I almost failed Differential Equations.  It was another case of just not getting it.  I went to the professor for help.  I went to other students for help.  I went to the tutoring center for help.  I spent hours in my professor’s office and in the office of another math prof.

I wound up with a D in the course, and it was a mercy D.  It was a D for sheer effort.  As in they didn’t understand who put in so much time and effort could possibly fail every test.  So I passed… barely.  On academic probation.  ‘D is for done’ sure didn’t feel done.  I seriously considered changing majors.  Maybe I wasn’t cut out for aerospace engineering after all, if I couldn’t cut it in one of our sophomore core classes.

And then something funny happened.  The next year I took a control systems class, and the first few weeks of it was a review of differential equations.  It clicked.  It finally made sense.  I got it.  And I slowly regained my confidence and stuck with a major that both challenged and interested me.

In grad school, years later, I took Differential Equations again.  It was required as a refresher since it had been more than six years since I had finished my undergrad.  I was nervous about it, after my struggles the first time around and it being so long since I was in school.  I did fine.  It wasn’t a cake walk, doing diff eq’s with a newborn and after so long away from school, but compared to the other classes I was taking it was a breeze.

I have spent an awful lot of time in school now.   Since I was three and started preschool, I have taken at least one class every year except 2010 and 2013.  I have learned that, with the exception of a few extraordinary geniuses, everyone struggles with some subject.  And when you run into that subject, you can try, and try, and try again, or you can decide you’re no good at it and give up.

Trying again doesn’t mean just banging your head against the wall.  It could mean trying a different textbook.  It could mean asking someone to watch you do some problems to see where you might be going astray.  Sometimes you need a different prof, teacher, tutor, parent, or friend who comes at it from a different way.  Just don’t throw your hands up and say “it’s too hard, I’ll never get it.”  Because when it does click, it’s not only an amazing feeling, but it opens you up for new, exciting topics.

When I was struggling with the geometry course, my mom told me about how she took calculus three times in college.  The third time she got an A.   Even though she had passed before, she wanted to understand it.  She credits a good teacher whose approach worked for her, and it clicked.  I’m glad she taught me that the most important thing is to fully understand, not necessarily to get an easy A.

Don’t let someone in your life give up on a career, major, or even a single class because they are struggling.  In this age of the internet, it’s easy to look for another way – online notes, some Khan Academy videos, Schaum’s Outlines, online tutoring services, or even lectures from some of the great online courses free from MIT.

What have you struggled with academically? What resources helped you get through it?  Do you ever wish you had chosen a different path, career field, or major?  What would you say to a young person who is struggling?

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Filed under Geek parenting resources, Opinion pieces, STEM outreach

Shameless Plug for SeaPerch

This program is run/sponsored by the Navy (Office of Naval Research, to be exact), which makes this post just a little bit of a shameless plug.  Just sayin’ that up front.

I am extremely bummed out that, due to wrist surgery, I can’t participate in the local program this year.  Since, you know, unmanned-underwater-vehicle-building with kids tends to take both hands and a mind clear of painkillers.  There’s always next year, though!

Now onto the good part – it’s a really, really awesome STEM outreach program.  I’ve participated in the program in various capacities before, and both the kids and their adult advisors loved it.  Or at least they did as far as I could tell.

The fifth graders were unabashedly enthusiastic about it, whereas the high schoolers were a bit more subdued, in that “I think this is cool, but I can’t let anyone know I think this is cool, so I’m gonna shrug a lot and doodle circles on the ground with my big toe” kind of way.

The idea is that each team builds a remote-controlled mini-submarine from a kit.  There is some leeway allowed in the design, so they can experiment a little to see what works best.  Then they can take their creation to a competition, where they are judged on how well it performs on an underwater obstacle course (usually in a local swimming pool).

Teams can be individuals or up to a whole class in size, but generally it works best with around four kids per kit.  Kits can be purchased for under $200 and a toolkit is recommended but can be shared among groups.  There is often grant money available.

A portion of the competition is also an interview segment, where judges ask questions to see how well the kids understand what they’ve built (how does the motor work, why did you place that piece there, etc.).  Points are also given for teamwork, team spirit, and how they present a record of their work – usually a log of some sort describing their efforts, and maybe a science fair type poster, depending on the team.

The competition part goes all the way up to the national level.  Teams can come from schools, church youth groups, Boys & Girls clubs, scouting organizations, JROTC units, a couple of kids from the neighborhood, you name it.

The SeaPerch challenge is adaptable to age ranges from 5th grade through college freshmen, and various size groups.  It helps develop fundamental skills in areas including physics, electronics, mechanics, engineering, teamwork, critical thinking, problem solving, fluid dynamics, buoyancy, robotics, and – most importantly – how to glue PVC pipe together.  Seriously, it really is both fun and educational.

For more information or to find a competition near you, check out the SeaPerch Website.

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So what exactly are the numbers for women in STEM?

I’ve always known that women were outnumbered in STEM fields in this country, but hadn’t really checked on what the stats are.  I know that in my particular job, which is a very tiny sub-field, we’re at about 9% and, thankfully, climbing (it was 7% just a few years ago).  So I found this info from the National Girls Collaborative Project very interesting.  It’s from June 2013 but probably pretty close to today’s numbers.

A couple other interesting stats, first from an ESA blog post from 2011 title STEM: where are the women?

Stats from the Economics & Statistics Administration from 2009

And this more recent one showing breakdown by generation, Economic Briefing April 24, 2012: STEM Across the “Gen(d)erations.”  The overall percentage of college graduates and of women in STEM fields is increasing.

ESA stats from 2010

The ESA stats go on to show that the bulk of women in STEM fields are in life sciences and physical sciences, and the tiniest portion in math.

The one that makes me really angry is the one showing the wage gap for women in STEM fields.  Even in specialized fields requiring degrees, and fields supposedly governed by things like logic and performance, this gap is maddeningly huge:

And finally there’s this graphic, which shows the fields where we have not made much progress in the last several decades, and in many cases have regressed, such as in computer sciences.

What do you think is holding women back from entering and competing in so many of these fields?  Why do so many more women go into life sciences fields (biology, medicine, etc.) than the computer sciences and engineering?

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Review of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Ok, finally managed to get through the episode – it was worth waiting until I could get through it all with my daughter, as she sat totally transfixed in my lap to watch it.

Overall, I enjoyed it.  They have updated the show from the Sagan years with modern CG, and the graphics and music are lovely.   It’s more basic than most adults with any kind of STEM enthusiasm or background need, but far more advanced than some really, really bad STEM-related shows in recent years (I’m looking at you and your oversimplification, The Planets).  It’s not overly simplistic, but presented in a way that’s accessible to everyone, which is exactly the point of a mainstream science show.  I think they found a nice balance – at least in the first episode.

Also, I’m not going to complain at all that a science show is on Fox.  I appreciate how great that is!  It doesn’t begin to make up for canceling Firefly or any of their other terrible decisions, but it shows that maybe, just maybe, they’re taking a step in the right direction.  So, on to the review, of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I liked the ‘cosmic address’ analogy that Neil deGrasse Tyson used to describe how to locate Earth in the Universe.  It works for those who are used to mailing addresses, but also for the younger crowd who speak in IP addresses.

DidI mention the graphics and music?  Boy, we’ve come a long way in computer graphics and animation in the last few decades.  Love it.  They also did a great mix of what is clearly real satellite imagery (I recognized a few famous Hubble shots in there) and computer-generated.  This is a very visually-appealing show.

It can keep the interest of both an adult aerospace engineer and a 3-year-old.  That’s a tough thing to pull off.  My daughter’s main concerns where whether Neil de Grasse Tyson was harmed in the filming of the Big Bang scene, and what exactly happened to the dinosaurs.  Luckily, she didn’t really understand the scene with The Inquisition.

The ‘Cosmic Calendar’ they used to show the scale of the age of the universe was very well done.  It really helped break something that enormous into chunks small enough to wrap the human brain around.

The personal story of Neil deGrasse Tyson meeting and being inspired by Carl Sagan was also a very nice touch.  Adding the current human interest element to stories that can sometimes feel impersonal – like the forming of galaxies and a long-ago story of an early astronomer – helps attract and keep a modern audience.

All that said, what was up with the weird little spaceship thing that flew around in a lot of the space scenes?  It looks a lot like the a bottle opener I have.  I also took issue with the ‘blowing clouds of cosmic dust’ or whatever that was supposed to be that Voyager seemed to be flying through – which is the kind of thing would have demolished the poor satellite decades ago.

The caption is “The Ship of the Imagination, free from the shackles of space and time, can go anywhere.” But the ship is seriously weird-looking. From:

My OXO bottle opener looks suspiciously like the "spaceship of the imagination"

My OXO bottle opener looks suspiciously like the “ship of the imagination”

The weird cartoon of Bruno’s story with cheesy accents and creepy arrow-shooting cherubs.  And then flying through space scenes with cape and hair waving in the wind.  Just plain bizarre.  Also, the whole thing was a little too drawn out and dramatized with the name-calling and book-throwing and flashes to shots of torture instruments.

The good in this show far outweighed the bad.  I like the new Cosmos, and I really, really hope it doesn’t become another reason I have to buy one of those “I’d rather be watching shows canceled by Fox” t-shirts.  Fingers crossed.

What did you think of it?  How does it compare with your memories of the original?  Will you continue to watch?

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Filed under Geek parenting resources, Geeking out, Movie & TV Reviews, STEM outreach

Smart and Beautiful Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Cover of Danica McKellar’s first of several math books, from

One of the more obnoxious trends I’ve seen lately is these taobloid-website lists of ‘famous women who have both beauty and brains!’  or ’50 hottest smart girls’ or some title to that effect.  They make it sound like it’s this totally shocking thing that almost never happens.

I couldn’t put my finger at first on all of the many reasons I was so completely horrified and offended by these.  So I’ll break it down into smaller pieces.

First, for a woman to become and stay famous, she already usually has some sort of talent (not always, I’ll grant you, but usually).  Is it that big a stretch that her talents for politics, singing, acting, photography, dance, or whatever made her actually famous might be only one of the things she’s good at?  Should it really be a surprise that in addition to drive and charm she’s got a good head on her shoulders?  Brains and beauty are certainly not mutually exclusive.

Second, some of these lists say ‘girls’ rather than women.  Every single person I saw on the lists was in her twenties or beyond.  You would never see a list like this with ‘boys’ in the title if any of them were over 18.  Stop infantalizing women, mass media.  They are women.  Ladies.  Grown Females.  Pick a word that addresses them correctly – these are not little girls.

Third, the stereotype of smart women being ugly is obnoxious and incorrect.  I think the majority, not a minority, of smart, successful women are beautiful.  And that being smart and well-educated just makes them even more beautiful and interesting people.  I know and work with a lot of very smart, very lovely women.

Fourth, I disagree with our country’s ridiculous standard of what is ‘pretty’ or ‘beautiful’ anyway.  I think that will probably be a post of its own one of these days, but for now let’s just say I don’t think that super skinny with caked-on makeup and a skimpy, ‘fashionable’ outfit is the end-all, be-all of attractiveness.

I love that Danica McKellar has a degree in math and writes books for young girls encouraging them to like and be good at math.  I think it’s fantastic that Kate Beckinsale speaks four languages fluently, and that Natalie Portman went to Harvard.  What drives me nuts is that because they also are public figures who meet a certain current Hollywood standard of beauty, people assume they are stupid.  That they are freakish outliers.  I assure you they, for the most part, are not.  So let’s give all women the benefit of the doubt and assume brains until proven otherwise, and not judge on looks, stereotypes, clothing, or any other silly external factor.

Speaking of Danica McKellar, when I went to search for an image for this post, I thought it would be fun to find one of her books to show in this post.  When I started typing her name in to google, it auto-filled for me to ‘Danica McKellar hot.’  That alone says a lot.  It says that’s what way more people care about – finding steamy pictures of her, not her great work in STEM outreach and making math more accessible for girls and young women.

Do you think that smart women really fit the stereotype?  Who are the smart and beautiful women in your life?  How do you bust the stereotype when someone starts making false assumptions?

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I Love it When STEM Outreach Makes the News

My best friend from college was recently part of a STEM workshop for middle school girls, and it made the Washington Post.  I’m excited for all the events they did at the workshop, the enthusiastic response of the girls who participated, and that a major newspaper took notice.  Also, I’m jealous of the really cool projects they did, which included building artificial hearts from rubber tubing, launching straw rockets, and a workshop on combating bioterrorism.  Definitely time for me to go work another STEM outreach event – I want to play, too!

The full article is here.

Have you ever been to a STEM workshop or outreach event?  What did you think of it?

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Alan Alda’s Flame Challenge: Making Science More Accessible for Both Young And Old

Today a Slate article about Alan Alda’s Flame Challenge caught my attention.  This was partly because years of watching lots of M.A.S.H. reruns on AFN as a child made me love Alan Alda, partly because it’s about getting kids more interested in science, and partly because this is one of those why on Earth didn’t anyone think of doing something like this before type of ideas.

The challenge is now a few years old and consists of coming up with a best way to explain a word or concept to an 11-year-old.  This stems from a childhood experience Alan Alda had of asking “what is flame?” and getting unsatisfying answers.  The kind of questions that at first glance seem easy, but then make you wonder how would you really explain that to a kid?  The contest aims to give a really good, scientifically accurate, easily understandable answer to a posed question once per year – and it must be an answer that an 11-year-old can understand and will accept.

Scientists submit their explanations, a panel checks them for accuracy, and then actual students judge the entries.  Answers can be in written, video, or graphic form.  The contest rules are here.

The first year (2012), the question was “What is a flame?”  Last year, it was “What is time?”  This year it is “What is color?”  The winning entries and finalists are then posted on the website – and they are simply wonderful.

Alan Alda’s Center for Communicating Science come about from his love of science and desires to make it easier for all people to communicate effectively and easily about science.  His organization works with Stony Brook University and offers courses through their journalism program.  The Flame Challenge is also sponsored by the American Chemistry Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, so it has some very well-respected scientific organizations behind it.

At this point, I’m guessing you’re dying to know what the best answers are to “What is a Flame?” and “What is Time?”  Because you never know when your kid is going to ask!  So here they are:
“What is a Flame?” Winner – Ben Ames.  If this one doesn’t do it for you, you can also check out the What is a Flame?” finalists here, for some good alternative explanations.

What is Time?  Written Winner – Nicholas Williams.

What is time?  Have you ever heard your parents say to you that it’s time to go to bed or time to get up, time to go to school, time to clean your room, time to do this, time to do that, and on and on. Our world runs on a time schedule, and the schedule is so tight that there are schedules for everything we do throughout the day and clocks that tell you what time it is so we can do those things at the correct time. Time is so obvious in our lives that no one questions it. It’s just there, we have to live with it, and so we accept it. All activity on earth is based on time, and this time is what happened a second ago, a minute ago, an hour ago, days ago, and years ago. Well, now we have an important question. What is it?  Time has a lot of definitions; like time is history or time is age. But, have we ever considered a good definition? I have. Here’s my definition. And no, I did not get this from some book or online. It’s just something that makes sense to me. I think of time as Forward Movement. Think about it! Everything moves forward, from the universe to every second of your life. And because everything moves forward, man developed a way to keep track of this Forward Movement and called it time. Man also invented clocks to keep a precise log of this Forward Movement in years, days, hours, minutes, seconds, and even parts of seconds. I’ll always continue to think of time as Forward Motion. I’ll also think of it as a Forward Motion that will never change, will never stop, and can never be reversed.

“What is Time?” Visual Category Winner – Steven Maguire

And the “What is Time” finalists can be found here.

The best answer to “What is Color?” will have to wait until the winning entry is announced in June.

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