Space Wands and Table Saws: Tools and Rules for Girls at California’s Science Centers (Part III)

This is the third and final in a series of posts.  Read Part I and Part II.


During the course of this project, I conducted a series of interviews with administrative and/or front-line educational staff at most of the science centers I visited.  The interviews allowed me to gauge professionals’ everyday awareness of gender dynamics, as well as informally assess their knowledge of research on gendered learning.  Again, these are excerpts; you can read more about these interviews at Museum Blogging.

Photo by Jennifer Kiernan, and used under a Creative Commons license

My initial findings suggest that the administrative-level staff at these science centers are aware of the difficulties in getting girls involved in science and have a passing familiarity with the literature on girls and informal science learning, but are often unaware of any solutions to the problem, short of long-term programs that cater to girls or having women as well as men present their educational programs.  An underlying assumption of many of my interviewees seemed to be that gender was a problem, but one that had been addressed adequately in the 1980s and 1990s, while reaching “underserved” communities (read: the poor or people of color) was their current audience goal.  Unfortunately, small science centers generally lack the funding to develop and implement long-term programs to serve either girls or students of color.  Meanwhile, relatively few larger centers have developed programs that cater to girls.

Providing staff members of both genders, as well as addressing gender in staff training, was a concern to most of the educators and administrators I interviewed.

One director of education said her main concern is getting staff to consider the topics with which boys or girls may be most comfortable, and then using that knowledge to better recruit girls into programs that will introduce them to new experiences.  “We do discuss gender,” she explained in an interview, “as far as knowing we want as many girls to sign up as boys do.”  Her first step is to recruit a diverse staff: “Lots of skin colors, different languages, males and females, age differences.  There’s something to having someone other than an older woman, someone you’d think of as a traditional teacher, doing the education,” she said.  During staff training for summer programs, she said,

we’ll remark upon the fact that boys will be more comfortable with tools, whereas girls may think it’s a challenge and others may not want to participate.  For a lot of newcomer kids who are used to being in anther country, in another culture, there are stigmas involved in doing things that guys are supposed to do, such as working in a machine shop or handling a specific tool.  Ironically, the girls are often much better at handling the tools than boys are.  Girls are better at not barreling into things in middle school like the boys are.  When we go over safety issues, guys don’t hear the safety concerns and aren’t as good at implementing them.  Girls don’t feel as confident, but might be more thoughtful.

“We don’t by any means have the girls working with female staff members, and boys with male staff members,” she continued, “but if a female student feels more comfortable with a female staff member, then that’s fine.  It’s much more organic, and the idea is, the opportunity is there.”  She emphasized that during the summer programs, when kids and instructors need help with a particular tool, instructors will sometimes deliberately seek out a woman to explain the workings of the tool, in an attempt to demonstrate that men and women are equally competent in the machine shop.  For students as well as visitors, she said, it’s inspiring to see girls and women using potentially dangerous machinery.  “Our programming is open for people to observe,” she said, “and the kids using the belt sander or the table saw are in full view of the public.  It’s a little interesting to see a 12-year-old girl with goggles on at a bandsaw.”

A director of a smaller science museum said s/he has explicitly brought up gender in educational programs at staff meeings.  Four years ago, the center noticed that its summer science camps were composed overwhelmingly of boys.  Accordingly, the program tried to recruit and retain more girls by training the staff on questioning techniques and exercises that may better engage girls with the subjects at hand.  S/he said the mentality of educators in the past had been “Keep that boy busy, the little girl will keep herself busy…. We get more boys with learning challenges in summer camp than we do girls.”  The boys, therefore, may be more demanding of attention.  The staff decided to include some arts and crafts projects—traditionally considered a feminine activity—to attract and engage more girls.  The tactic worked.  The director said, “We found that during those art and craft projects that supported the programs that more questions came from the girls than from the boys about the topic.”

In addition, the director explained, she recruits families into her efforts to retain girls:

We’re actively talking to the parents.  Do you think your girl will be back next year?  What would you like to see more of?  We ask the girls, too:  What did you like most?  What did you like least?  Girls wanted more labs.  Boys wanted to blow up more things, be with the leaders more.

The director of another small science center was quick to point out that one of the institution’s greatest strengths as far as gender is concerned is that the staff of the museum is overwhelmingly female, with the entire educational staff constituted by women at the time of the interview.  This gendering of educators is important in informal science education, where, as s/he noted, “parental involvement can be very powerful in turning girls away from science.”

Photo by Steven Depolo, and used under a Creative Commons license

These educators are indeed in an excellent position to serve as role models to girls interested in science.   In discussing her significance as a role model, one educator at this same small science center noted that “kids ask me all the time about my education.  To them, we know everything about science.  I had a little girl come up to me after a lesson and tell me she wants to teach science.  She didn’t even know that was an option before I showed up.  Every scientist you see on TV is male.”  It is important to note, however, that these female educators have themselves fallen out of the science pipeline by accepting relatively low-paying, educational (as opposed to research-based) jobs at a nonprofit institution.  All of the educators I interviewed in my first round of questions had degrees in science, and all expressed interest in eventually returning to mainstream science, either by securing laboratory or research positions, or by returning to school to pursue graduate degrees.

Their background in science has served these educators well, not just as teachers of science, but as keen observers.  All of my interviews with science center staff were enlightening, but those with front-line science educators at this particular small science center were the most so.  Although these science education specialists were not familiar with the literature on gender and science, in their hands-on experiences they have noticed the same things academic researchers have.  They made many comments about adults’ interactions with boys and girls, noting that boys tend to get more attention from teachers, volunteers, and parents in both the exhibits and classrooms because the boys are more likely to be disruptive or to use the exhibits in ways they were not intended.  Girls, one educator observed, could be counted on to work quietly—and usually in pairs or small groups—to do “the right thing.”

These educators also noted that socially, outside the museum girls are not encouraged to explore and be active as much as are boys.  Boys are encouraged, for example, to explore subjects that many adults might find “gross,” such as tearing apart owl pellets or coyote scat to find rodent bones, or to examine the tiny creatures that live in pond water.  One educator noticed this dissuasion of girls carries over into classroom expectations; girls, she noted, are less likely to raise their hands in all grades, but their participation in question-and-answer sessions declines precipitously in the fifth and sixth grades.

Alternative Programs

There are, of course, alternatives to traditional, one-hour classroom outreach programs, exhibit-based lessons for school groups, and interaction with casual visitors during public hours.  Science centers may develop slightly more formal programs that meet over an extended period of time with the goal of getting girls to engage with science and stick with it through high school, college, and beyond.  Two particularly promising programs for girls, Techbridge and FIRST, have been undertaken through Chabot Science Center.

Techbridge acknowledges that most computer technology for young people is designed with boys in mind.  “Take a look at computer games or course offerings and you'll find that most are designed for boys,” proclaims Techbridge’s web site, “Consider the image of computer scientists portrayed in the media and you’ll also find it isn’t likely to attract many students—girls or boys—to technology”  (techbridge.asp).

As of 2002, Techbridge was hosted before and after school at five middle schools and three high schools in Oakland as well as at the California School for the Blind, and provides an important bridge between middle school and high school by helping girls make decisions about how to develop their technology skills inside and outside of school.  The program also works to dispel the image that computer scientists are exclusively male or nerdy by providing the girls with access to professional women who rely on technology in their careers.  These women also steer students toward internships, college preparatory programs, and financial aid.  In addition, Techbridge trains teachers how to engage girls with technology in the classroom (techbridge.asp).

Chabot also hosted FIRST, Female Involvement in Real Science and Technology, for a few years under a grant from the National Science Foundation.  In this program, girls and teachers at elementary schools, middle schools, and the California School for the Blind learned to work together as they planned and executed hands-on science activities.  Afterschool clubs of 10 to 35 girls met two or four times each month.  According to FIRST’s web site, “Within the group setting, girls played with building blocks, tinkered with tools, made solar ovens, and observed crayfish under microscopes.” Although the science center’s funding has expired, several schools have continued their participation in FIRST (first.asp).

The National Science Foundation has funded several other programs that sought to involve girls in science, some hosted by museums, others by schools, and still others by nonprofit organizations.  It is not within the scope of this project to discuss such projects, though museums and science centers certainly could borrow ideas from the most successful of these programs and integrate them into their own outreach.  My research makes clear, however, that science centers are particularly well-suited to develop and implement these programs.  Staff at these centers are generally highly educated (many hold masters’ degrees or Ph.D.s), care passionately about the public understanding of science, and have the creativity and talent to create exhibits and programs that reach new audiences.

Improving informal science education and improving access to scientific careers, then, is a matter  of renewing interest in gender at science centers, of foregrounding the needs of girls as well as those of boys.  This means increasing funding to science centers, and especially to those willing to devote staff time to developing greater opportunities for girls and young women.  Admittedly, during a recession (and under the Republican administration during which I researched this paper), such funding can be difficult to come by (Sadker and Sadker 1994, 37).  However, until we prioritize girls’ science education, students will continue to see science as a bastion of whiteness and masculinity—a perception that harms everyone.

Works cited or consulted for this essay, as well as a list of interview questions, are available at the bottom of this post.

What are your thoughts?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks is an adjunct professor of museum studies at John F. Kennedy University and a consultant on issues of education and professional development.  If you liked this post, check out her blog Museum Blogging or contact Leslie directly: leslie -at- museumblogging -dot- com.  You can also sign up for her occasional newsletter on museum professional development.




I commend you for taking on this research project and presenting it to the public.

I really like the way you have recognized that there are differences in the female and male gender and did not make the mistake of assuming they should have the same interests. This is especially evident in the case where the boys are fondling the mannequins boobs. Hilarious, yet revealing. We are different, and we have different motivations, and it goes beyond gender (and race).

There are two points you bring up that, to me, are the most important to focus on if we wish to get more girls involved in science (or in any other male dominated fields). First, the parents are HUGE. Parents sometimes assume, based on cultural imagining, that their child will be more or less interested in an activity, without ever giving the child the opportunity of experience. A Parent's responsibility to their child is providing them with unbiased options.

Second, you brought up the idea of role models when you mentioned the lack of female representatives being displayed in these science centers. I am a pilot, a female in a male saturated career. Every day I have women giving me thumbs up. Mom's telling their girls to look in the cockpit at the woman pilot. The reason is obvious. It's shocking. Without role-models, some girls can not see themselves in these careers. So, we need more examples of contributing females.

Again, thanks for bringing this up. You gave me an idea for another story.

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Just want to see if you are a robot.