Girls and minorities need to see themselves in stories solving problems, exploring world

Jayda, the 8-year-old daughter of Atlanta March for Science organizer and Emory microbiologist Jasmine Clark, shows her enthusiasm for science. How do we get more girls to see themselves as scientists? (Photo/Atlanta March for Science)

Morgan Young of Atlanta is a former aerospace engineer and the author of “Lana & the Water Carrier,” a middle grade novel that features a smart, adventurous African-American girl with a magic telescope, and introduces readers to basic astronomy concepts.

She will be reading from her book at Fernbank Science Center’s Astronomy Day program Saturday. Click here for more details.

By Morgan Young

Never underestimate the power of fictional stories in education. Of course, we understand its importance in teaching language arts. But it can also prove useful in teaching math and science. And it just might be the key to getting (and keeping) girls and underrepresented minority students interested in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics].

The Georgia Department of Education aims to prepare students for careers in the 21st Century workplace by providing quality STEM education opportunities. It defines STEM education as an integrated curriculum driven by “problem solving, discovery, exploratory project/problem-based learning, and student-centered development of ideas and solutions.”

Yet, in a recent survey of Georgia high school students graduating in 2017, nearly 45 percent of boys stated an interest in pursuing STEM careers while roughly 13 percent of girls stated a similar interest.

The same survey showed that Georgia’s graduating African-American students trailed other ethnic groups in stating an interest in STEM, though not as significantly as girls trailed boys.

This should come as no surprise, as women and minorities like African-Americans are underrepresented in STEM fields.

But why the limited interest?

Some have speculated that girls (and children representing certain minority groups, regardless of gender) can’t see or imagine themselves in STEM fields, which have been traditionally dominated by men and looked upon as aspirational for boys.

In my view, if we want girls and underrepresented minority children to become interested in STEM, we need to give them fictional stories to spark their imagination.

We should provide them with engaging stories that depict children like themselves engaged in problem-solving, discovery, exploration, and development of ideas and solutions (Georgia DOE’s very own definition of STEM education).

The idea of using fiction to communicate science-based concepts isn’t novel. We’ve already seen the emergence of “informational fiction” books, where much of the information is factual yet presented through the stories of fictional characters. For example, many teachers and parents are familiar with the Magic School Bus series by Joanna Cole for younger students. And even science-fiction novels like “The Martian” by Andy Weir are useful in helping students to understand real scientific ideas.

I don’t recall reading any books like that while growing up.

Instead, I grew up reading plenty of stories about smart and adventurous children whose names we all know by heart:  Tom Sawyer. Huck Finn. Encyclopedia Brown. The Hardy Boys.

All boys. All white.

Very few stories featured smart and adventurous girls as protagonists, much less African-American girls like me. Nancy Drew and Meg from Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” — two white girls — are the only two that come to mind.

I wanted to be Encyclopedia Brown, going around the neighborhood solving problems for other kids using pure logic.

I was smart and adventurous—and labeled a tomboy.

Somehow, I accepted the tomboy moniker with pride. I had no problem doing anything boys could do. That included logic-based subjects like math and science.

But, as an African-American girl growing up, it annoyed me that I NEVER saw any books about girls who looked and acted like me.

Oh sure, I read the civil rights stories and the slavery escape stories. In fact, the stories about Harriett Tubman were the most adventurous ones I ever read. Her actions as she avoided capture while transporting runaway slaves safely to the North were not only heroic and adventurous, but demonstrably smart and logical. Her experiences were also both real and tragic. That removed her stories from the “adventure” category and relegated them to the somber category of non-fiction “black history.”

Today, some things have changed.

For one thing, the “black history” category is decidedly less somber. It now includes fascinating stories about people whose contributions to society may have been previously overlooked. “Hidden Figures,” an inspiring book by Margot Lee Shetterly, highlights a fascinating true story about black women mathematicians who worked on NASA’s Apollo missions. Last year, a film version of the book dazzled the country and inspired many parents to take their children to see it.

For another, the children’s literature landscape is teaming with self-affirming books that encourage black girls to love themselves (their hair, their skin, their noses, and their bodies).

Without question, it is still necessary to help girls, particularly black girls, cope with self-esteem issues that result from a society that has long devalued them.

I’m seeing the same trends in terms of encouraging girls into STEM fields, which are still dominated by men. The shelves of libraries and bookstores are lined with books, proclaiming to girls “YOU can be a scientist too.”

Again, it’s a great message.

But that’s not storytelling. That’s proselytizing.

Girls and minority children need to see themselves reflected in books actively doing the things most books only proclaim they can do: problem-solving, discovering, exploring, and developing ideas and solutions.

 

 

Reader Comments 0

20 comments
Wascatlady
Wascatlady

They also need opportunities to talk with women and underrepresented minorities who are actually DOING things in the STEM world.  And they need teachers of whatever race and whichever gender, all through school who show a genuine interest in helping them discover the STEM world.


My daughter credits her high school teachers, especially, with giving her the confidence to pursue her interests and the few naysayers with giving her the grit to prove that, yes, she CAN and WILL.


Bless those who, consciously or not, make the effort to give this encouragement and sense of self-efficacy to kids no matter gender or race.

Milo
Milo

As boys continue to fall further and further behind in our female dominated, male repressed educational system, lets continue to fret over our poor little girls and continue to try to erase all inherent genetic differences. 

ErnestB
ErnestB

Great piece by Ms. Young.  Ironically I spoke to the brother of the 2nd black to graduate from Georgia Tech in the mid 60's this past weekend.  He shared how his brother had some classes where students refused to sit next to him.  Those experiences did not deter his brother from graduating from GT. He also shared that he followed his brother to Georgia Tech in the late 60's  He was one of 10 blacks and there were 40 women attending at the time.


Looking at enrollment data from 2015, there were 2,304 women at GT (498 black) and 1,406 blacks in total.  The dean of Engineering, Gary May, attended GT in the early 80's and will assume the position of Chancellor at the University of California-Davis.  I believe Georgia Tech now graduates more black engineers than any other school in the world. See the link below for the enrollment information I used:


http://factbook.gatech.edu/admissions-and-enrollment/class-enrollment-by-gender-ethnicity-table-4-18/


I share above to point out that progress is being made however Ms. Young's point about girls and minorities needing images as to what they can aspire to be is true.  I went to school at a time when girls took Home Economics and boys to Shop.  I took a typing class and got all kinds of stares however I understood how that would help my in my desire to go into Computer Science.

In addition to seeing the images of women in STEM in books, what I offer is speaking at school Career Days and sharing my journey.  It never ceases to amaze me the looks on children's faces when you explain the relevance of their classes to providing a foundation to a career, especially in STEM.

dawgfacedboy
dawgfacedboy

All of those stories you heard growing up like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are because the majority of consumers where white men. What sense does it make in a capitalistic economy to cater to the minority?? We need more black women in STEM programs like we need straight men in fashion and interior design. Does it ever occur to people that certain things just don't interest certain people, no matter how bad YOU want it?? Maybe you should concentrate on bigger problems affecting the AA community instead of not enough of them being interested in the STEM programs?? That is the least of the problems. 

Morgan Young
Morgan Young

@dawgfacedboy Women constitute the majority of the population now. Does that mean we should only cater to them and ignore all the men? 


To the extent that you are trying to say fashion and interior design is are industries in which straight men should be excluded or ignored, I disagree. People should be permitted to pursue any studies in which they have an interest and ability to do.


As for bigger problems affecting the "AA community," I'm not sure what problems you are talking about. But multiple issues affect any given community. Like, the USA might have issues with racism, joblessness, hunger, immigration, pollution, etc. No one is telling the USA that it can't focus on jobs because it has to focus on immigration. Nor can anyone really conclude with certainty which one is the "least" of the problems.


Sorry, I find your concern about the AA community's "bigger problems" disingenuous.

kaelyn
kaelyn

There is not one girl in our school's robotics team. The boys on the team are a good mix of ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds, but they can't attract any girls. I see what the author is talking about.

A friend of mine, who is an African American female physician, is always sending me information about STEM events targeting girls. However, in her daughter's private high school, the girls still won't take engineering or higher level computer classes.

So bravo to Ms. Young for addressing this issue. Her work will make a difference.

dawgfacedboy
dawgfacedboy

@kaelyn Hmmmmmmmm... no girls interested in building and playing with robots?? Weird. Must be a problem that needs fixing, then. Are there a disproportionate number of guys in the ROTC and auto shop classes, too?? WEIRD!?!?!? Wait, please tell me you don't have way more girls than boys in your cosmetology program!!! STOP THE MADNESS!!!!!!! FIX THE PROBLEM BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE!!!!!!!!!!!

Doom a classical liberal
Doom a classical liberal

@dawgfacedboy @kaelyn


Well, you know the progressives. Always in search of a "problem" to solve. 


I don't think it ever occurs to them that individual  choices and interests are primarily what's at play- not some nefarious plot to keep girls and minorities out of STEM fields. 

Morgan Young
Morgan Young

@Doom a classical liberal I see no new or meaningful observations in Dawgfaceboy's comments, but YOU have made one regarding individual choices and interests. 


It absolutely occurs to me that girls are making the choice not to go into STEM fields. My question is: why? 


We cannot assume "individual choices" are made in a vacuum, but rather are informed by a lifetime of experiences in the real world. 


An 18yo college student's life experiences inform her decisions. Experiences include observing the world around her, exploring opportunities presented to her, and accepting or rejecting what she finds unsuitable to her.


If girls collectively make the same choice to avoid STEM fields at a greater rate than boys, it likely isn't individual. Rather, it's inexorable. Hence the search for an explanation. 

time for reform
time for reform

I'm guessing what you really needed while growing up, Ms. Young, was less black inner-city culture: those absent fathers and irresponsible mothers; the misogynistic hip-hop music lyrics that trivialize sex and motherhood while promoting street-thug chic; and above all else, the shameful willingness to blame "whitey" for one's own poor choices in life.

Minus those obstacles wouldn't there be a natural tendency for the best and the brightest in your own demographic to rise without the literary affirmative action you seem to be calling for here?

Seriously, instead of limiting the horizons of white (and Asian) males in hopes of forcing room at the top for your black sisters, why not work to change what's so glaringly wrong in your own black community?

dawgfacedboy
dawgfacedboy

@kaelyn What's your point? That since young white males are the largest consumer (they are the biggest demographic by the way) that there is no correlation between rap music and it's message and it's influence on young people??



ErnestB
ErnestB

@time for reform


Who do you think is subsidizing the promotion of the "black inner-city culture with those absent fathers and irresponsible mothers; the misogynistic hip-hop music lyrics that trivialize sex and motherhood while promoting street-thug chic; and above all else, the shameful willingness to blame "whitey" for one's own poor choices in life"?  If people see an easier pathway to success in the areas you mention, what road do you think they will choose?

kaelyn
kaelyn

I must have missed the part where the author said she grew up in the circumstances described.

Let me add that the largest consumers of misogynistic rap garbage (we agree on that) are young whites. The surgeon's son four houses down from me is a particularly avid fan, and lets us all know every weekend. So before going on an ignorant rant, perhaps you should first get your facts straight.

Morgan Young
Morgan Young

@kaelyn Thank you for answering on my behalf. I did not grow up under the circumstances ErnestB describes. 


Interestingly, he reminds me that there's an additional beneficiary of stories about girls and minorities. People like him--who see relatively few positive stories about people like me--need to see those stories just as much as we do. 


Else, they move through the world completely unenlightened about the lives of others. Worse yet, if they are in positions of power, they are capable of oppression based on the stereotypes about others.