STEM Girls

Sydney (“Syd”) is a 15-year-old high school girl with a sharp mind and an adorable, silly laugh.  Raised by her mom Denise, a medical research writer, Sydney grew up with all kinds of toys, from dolls to building sets to books and games, and she always liked math in school.  In middle school, the mother and daughter went to a major Girl Scouts event where Syd saw something that would change her life.  What she saw was a basketball being thrown into the hoop from half-court.

Did Syd suddenly plan to become a pro basketball player?  Not exactly.  Instead, Syd was interested in the arm that threw the basketball – a machine!  A local high school’s robotics team built this basketball-throwing machine (kinda like this one), and Syd’s mom remembers “After that, Syd kept coming back to that basketball throwing robot, and told me that is what she wants to do.”

So when Sydney got to high school and saw that they offered technology and engineering classes, Sydney happily signed up, choosing EAST (Environmental and Special Technologies) and the Robotics club.  This was right up her alley! Syd found both classes interesting and fun.

Then one day in her tech class, something interesting happened.  Interesting, but not fun.

Sydney recalls, “Our class was working on a project, and part of it was learning how to use program for creating a video games called Unity.  The boys were using the program, and I wanted to do it.  When I asked if I could take a turn, they said, ‘No, you can’t do this.’ I asked, ‘Why not?’ The boys answered, ‘Because you’re a girl.”

Sydney was shocked.  “Seriously?  That’s your excuse?” Sydney said.

The boys didn’t answer her.  “They just ignored me.  They had let me work on the project, but when it came to video games and tech, they didn’t want me to do anything.”

Sydney just sat there for the rest of the class period.  “I was frustrated, really angry…and a little surprised, at the way they think of girls – that they think women should not be in technology.”

Then she looked around at her classmates.  Out of 12 students, only 2 were girls.

A few weeks later, in Sydney’s Robotics club, (where you learn mechanical engineering), it happened again!  That day, the club was building an engine and learning how to solder (to connect objects using a blazing hot metal-melting tool).  Again, Sydney wanted to take her turn at trying this new skill, and again the boys wouldn’t let her.

Again, Sydney had to ask “why?”  The boys, who were all a grade ahead of Sydney, told her, “Because you’re only a freshman.”

Sydney persisted, “Well, yeah, but can’t I learn?”  The boys replied, “No. You’re a girl.”

Again, Sydney was shocked.  “What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked. The boys just repeated, “You’re a girl.”

For a second time Sydney was frustrated, angry, and disappointed to be shut out from the activities she came to do, for no reason except her gender.  She looked around again, and saw that here in the Robotics Club, she was once again one of only 2 girls in a class of 12 kids.

When Sydney told me this story,  I was sad and angry for her, for any person that is shut down, kept out, or cut off from their dreams simply because of some part of their identity–their color, gender, religion, etc .

But the story wasn’t over, and as Sydney came to the last part, a smile lit up her face.

“But it gets better” she said with a devilish arch of her eyebrow.  “The guys messed up. When it came time to put the engine together for the robot, it didn’t work. They attached the wire to the wrong parts of the engine!”

What did Sydney do then?  Did she point and laugh at the boys who had excluded her?  Did she sit in silence and do nothing?

Sydney simply said, “I may be a girl, but I would not have done that.”

Now I had a smile on my face, too! Go, Syd! Even though people tried to push her out, Sydney did not give up and does not plan on it.

Syd is a STEM girl — one of the many girls and women interested in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Student Doing Math On Chalk Board

As unfair and upsetting as Syd’s experience was, she’s lucky: Unlike many girls, Syd held onto her interests and goals into high school.

Research shows that 3/4 of middle school girls are interested in STEM careers, but less than 1% of high school girls choose computer science as a college major. For every 25 engineers, only 3 will be women. Sounds a lot like Sydney’s classes, right?

What did those boys really mean when they told Sydney she could not do these tasks “because she’s a girl”?  Did they mean girls aren’t good at STEM?  That girls should be doing other things instead?  Did they mean that no matter how capable she was, boys were still better at STEM?

As sad as it is that those boys believed any of that, I think it’s even sadder that girls believe it, too.

Our society sends the message that some work is “for boys” and other work is “for girls.” Even though girls are interested in STEM, and even though girls are as good as boys at STEM subjects, girls are often discouraged from exploring these subjects.  Kids get the message, from a very young age, that STEM is “for boys” and that babysitting, for example, is “for girls.”  I’m sure you can think of more examples.

I said that “society” sends this message, but we’re all a part of society, right?  So it’s worth asking yourself:  Have you ever decided not to do something that interested you, because you’re a girl?  Have you ever laughed at a boy for doing something that you thought was “for girls”?

How many people give up on their dreams — or never even dream those dreams in the first place — because they were told that those dreams are not “for” them?

I hope that Syd keeps being a STEM girl, if that’s what she wants.  And I hope that you, dear reader, respect your interests and protect your dreams, even when others try to discourage you.  No matter what people say, if you’re into something, it’s definitely “for” you!


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