Sunday, April 16, 2017

From Hidden Figures to Lab Girls

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A few weeks back, our ⅚ STEM teacher, Ms. Morgan, emailed a “mission moment” to the staff:

Yesterday in STEM, I had the scholars draw what they thought a scientist looked like. The lesson plan I was following was from SciMath. SciMath (as well as my own background and middle school days)  indicated that most would draw older mad scientists, predominately male.
However... LJA of course (AMAZINGLY) the vast majority drew female and young girl scientists.

Just showing me how much things have changed since I was their age :) and the wonderful programs at LJA that tell them they CAN!

What a great story! Students imagining scientists that look like themselves is probably even more important than you realize. Let’s take a closer look.

When SciMath predicted that the students would draw “older mad scientists, predominantly male,” they were actually drawing on evidence from the "Draw A Scientist" test, going all the way back to 1957. Through numerous iterations of the test since then, the stereotype has been relatively persistent. It probably doesn’t surprise anyone that in 1957 children imagined most scientists in that way: most scientists were men and sexism in science was stronger. The description of this time period from the bestselling book Hidden Figures probably surprises no one: “Women, however, had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations.” However, you would hope that after 60 years of hacking away, those expectations would be raised, and yet the stereotypical scientist is still male more for most students. What gives?

One big part of the problem is that the women chronicled in Hidden Figures didn’t have a bestselling book written about them (or a critically acclaimed film produced about them!) until 2016. The stories of women already in science have not been shared widely enough. We need to fix the overrepresentation of males as scientists in children’s books as well as in science textbooks. The imbalance between men and women in the scientific fields is a vicious cycle. It is hard for young girls to imagine themselves as scientists when they don’t see women scientists.

Even for the women who do become scientists this lack of stories can create problems. In her popular memoir Lab Girl (also from 2016), Minnesota-born Hope Jahren writes about the amazing lives of plants, her passion for science, and her enduring friendship with her lab partner Bill, but she also is honest about the impact of stereotypes against women in science, “In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be what you are.” When everyone’s heads are populated with images of men in lab coats doing science, it becomes hard for even actual women in science to correct those images.

But the existence of Lab Girl and Hidden Figures, and their popularity, is a step in the right direction. Evidence suggests that being exposed to the existence of real, actual scientists is enough for students to breakdown this stereotype about scientists. And breaking down this stereotype is the first step toward students imagining that they can be scientists. LJA was founded as a girl-focused school in part to put that focus, that spotlight, on these stories, so that we could begin undoing these persistent imbalances in STEM, so that 20 years from now, all students will believe that there are scientists out there that look like them.

So, upon second glance, it should be both less surprising and more uplifting that the students in Ms. Morgan’s class drew scientists that looked like themselves.

P.S. If after today’s blog post you are hungry for more stories of Women in Science, here is yet another recently published book that gets out more stories about female scientists:

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Middle School: The Worst Years of Your Life? They don’t have to be!

“That said, being an LJA grad has definitely made small talk difficult. A major bonding topic for people my age is how everybody—universally—hated middle school. I can’t participate in those discussions because I don’t know what that feels like. I loved my community. I loved the things I was learning.”   --Izzy R, LJA Alumni

American culture does not have a positive view of middle school. It comes as no surprise that a common google search about middle school brings you to ‘survival’ and the related ‘movie’ is called Middle School: The Worst Years of my Life.

What do I remember about middle school?  I remember the bully from gym class, and Orlando throwing a plant in anger. I remember a rumor going around that some students had beaten up Ronald McDonald and stolen his stereo, but in retrospect that was almost certainly not true (why would he be at our school with a stereo?!)  I remember latching onto a group of 7th grade friends when I was in 6th grade, then being adrift in 8th.  I remember the drudgery of science class.

What I don’t recall is much of the curriculum: memorable lesson plans, projects that pushed me, content knowledge that revealed a new world to me. Aside from Mr. Cook’s love of cows and Mr. Guertin’s crazy hair, I can’t remember much about my teachers either. I cannot think of a single school endorsed or organized event, program, club, that had much of an impact on me.

Is my memory colored by the ‘bonding topic’ that Izzy refers to, by telling the stories of bad things and overlooking the good? Certainly my middle school story fits the archetype of something that I “survived.”  I was lucky in that they weren’t The Worst Years of my Life, but it wasn’t that memorable either. It was, like I believe it is for many, the blip between the elementary school that parents often painstakingly seek out and the high school that students often enthusiastically choose.

I don’t think my mediocre middle school experience is purely a fiction of selective memory. Upon reflection, I think it fits into a larger pattern of poor middle school experiences that are based on middle schools’ poor adaptations to the particular needs of the budding adolescents that fill their halls, worried about their locker combo and dreading their boring/strict math class. Adolescents have a strong need for autonomy, competence, relationship and fun. They are going to meet these needs at school, one way or the other. In The Worst Years of My Life, the main character, Rafe, feels his need for fun and autonomy stifled by the insanely long list of inane rules. To fulfill those unmet needs, he decides that he is going to break every one. My middle school experience was much more benign (and I was much less rebellious) but whatever the staff had decided about how to make school fun, it certainly didn’t trickle down to me. At LJA we strive to integrate these needs into our daily academic work.

Relationship, Competence, Autonomy and Fun at LJA

Small class sizes make ‘relationship’ easier, but so do even smaller Peer Community Networks (PCNs) that meet daily to develop social emotional skills, and get in a quick dose of relationship and fun to start the day. Midday clubs also mean that every student gets to meet with small groups of peers that share an interest, not just those who are able to attend one of the (many) after school groups and activities that are offered.

Like the need for relationship, small class sizes makes designing LJA to meet student’s need for competence easier. Students can get more individual attention from teachers and staff, and designing and managing differentiation in classrooms is more manageable. Additionally, midday intervention and enrichment means that students also get classes tailored to their needs for growth.

The struggle for autonomy can be the hardest need for middle schools to meet. LJA tries to meet this need by valuing problem-solving and inquiry over compliance. This stance should not be underappreciated. The stifling of students’ creativity, individuality and talents are the common theme of popular middle school books, uniting Harry Potter, Stargirl, and The Worst Years of My Life. LJA strives to design and develop student-centered curriculum and instruction that avoids these pitfalls.

And of course, fun! Experiential programming during intersessions allow students to have all sorts of fun experiences, and every one has a chance to participate in hands-on programming during “J-term,” but LJA also strives to integrate a little bit of fun on a daily basis. This can be as simple as a two-minute movement game in the middle of a long class, or it can be carefully crafted fun, like role-playing a historical event. Sometimes, however, it is simply a mindset, like the willingness of a teacher to laugh along with students at her embarrassing typos.
Make Better Memories

No, LJA is not going to be able to smooth out all the bumps that come with the natural growing pains of puberty. No, LJA can’t guarantee that middle school will be the best years of your life. But we can guarantee that we strive as a staff to design our school to be as responsive as possible to the needs of adolescents for autonomy, competence, relationship and fun. Perhaps if I had gone to LJA as a child perhaps my list of memories would have been more like this:

The day Phoebe handed out free hugs; the lunch period when Ms. Allison was cheerfully taped to a wall to raise money; or the time we had a impromptu popsicle party the last 5 minutes of a beautiful June day. The lunches I had with my friends and teacher in “library club,” or the debate tournament when our school took half the prizes. My pride at performing in the talent show; the play I had to write and perform with LASS class; and the work it took--and the support I got--to complete my history day and science fair projects.

Middle school doesn’t have to be a time period to ‘survive,’ it should be a time to thrive!