How one school is using fun competition to close the gender science gap
As published in the February 2016 issue of Durham Parent
Despite more than a generation’s work to create a level playing field for the sexes, girls remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science according to Stats Canada. In these subjects, commonly referred to as STEM subjects, men continue to outrank women in university enrolment, employment numbers and salary levels. Researchers at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, however, found that girls who are exposed to science and technology outside the classroom are three times more likely to consider a career in one of the STEM fields. This is exciting news for parents who want to encourage their daughters to keep every door open as they explore areas of future interest and ability.
Chris Huxter teaches math and physics at Trafalgar Castle School in Whitby, and has been helping to run the school’s robotics program since its inception in 2004. Teaching at an all-girls’ school, Huxter has seen the impact of the program on the way girls learn. He believes that opportunities to experiment and take risks are important for girls, particularly those who are bright and often prefer to stay within the comfort zone of knowing the “right” answer. Many parents will recognize the type: daughters who often hold back, who silently fret about being wrong, who like to play it safe and, in the process, hesitate to take risks.
“Engaging in problem solving and persevering through failure is perhaps one of the most valued experiences any student can have, but even more so for young women who tend to believe that failing isn’t supposed to happen and it is somehow a reflection of their value,” explains Huxter. “Robotics allows girls to develop the resiliency to get up when they fall short, to smile as they engage once again, and to recognize and accept that indeed they are capable.”
Leadership skills are also developed through the program notes Rob Spessot, a fellow Trafalgar science teacher and robotics coach. “They learn to lead, take initiative, and accept responsibility for decisions, even if those decisions don’t produce expected results. More importantly, they learn that ‘wrong’ decisions are important steps towards making the ‘right’ decision.”
Sangeeta Sharma would agree. She participated in Trafalgar’s robotics program from Grade 9 through to graduation, and knows firsthand the impact it had on her future success. “I can say that my self confidence and leadership skills blossomed,” said Sharma. “I learned to manage my time and work as part of a team to create an innovative robot for the specified games over my four years of secondary school.”
Now in first-year university, Sharma believes that these early experiences were key factors in helping her manage the demands of her Mechanical Engineering program. “As a current engineering student, I have been able to apply most of my skills from robotics to my courses at university. Having a robotics program within schools allows for a better and brighter future, especially for girls and young women interested in STEM.”
As more opportunities to engage young women in the STEM subjects emerge and more female role models forge a bright path, the gender gap may close over time. This is important because advances in science will never be as strong as they can be if 50% of our population is absent from the table.
Can you match the Canadian female scientist with her field of study?
(a) Roberta Bondar (answer: Space)
(b) Ursula Franklin (answer: Physics)
(c) Helen Belyea (answer: Geology)
BONDAR: Canada’s first female astronaut and first neurologist in space.
FRANKLIN: World-renowned physicist and metallurgist.
BELYEA: One of the first female geologists allowed to work in the field by the Geological Survey of Canada and only the second woman to work as a geologist.