Thursday, November 1, 2018

GIRLS, STEM AND GEORGE JONES' RHINESTONES (GUEST POST BY CARA BARTEK)



George Jones, rhinestone studded and hair like a fresh dollop of sour cream, said it best: “I’ve had choices since the day that I was born.” While most of us might correctly believe the Possum was referring to his less than private relationship with the whiskey bottle, a keener observer will notice how subtle and stirring those lyrics actually are. Our lives are a cluster of choices. Everything we are and what we experience is connected to and dictated by choice. 

Nearly everyone who has survived being struck by lightning tells how their lives flashed before their eyes. Weddings, graduations, the birth of children, homes, jobs, vacations, lovers, and friends. All of these things come about as a result of choice: choices made by you and by others. To distill life is to reveal the crossroads we stand at every moment of every day.

Just because children are the smaller and non-voting members of the human race does not mean their choices have any less impact on their lives. Put simply, the choices kids make today stand to impact their lives and the paths they will take as they grow older. 

Girls and STEM is a hot topic now. Especially for middle school-ers during those very difficult in-between years. These are the years when “the crud” can creep in … when STEM subjects become increasingly difficult, when peers start to pressure, when social norms and expectations for what is appropriate for “female-kind” begin to form. All of these factors come together to create very difficult choices for girls.

The STEM Choice

I had a friend just the other day ask if I was trying to make everyone into a “nerdy scientist”. So I responded, “Hey! I’m just trying to make science happen. And rock these amazing yellow taco socks I’m wearing.” Okay, maybe it didn’t happen exactly that way. Maybe my friend had a point. While making everyone into a “nerdy scientist” certainly seems like a perfect world to me, I can understand her perspective.

She was recognizing the fact that not everyone, including not all girls, is going to be made for science. She revealed to me that STEM can be about preference, what we like and what we don’t like. Preference drives what we are attracted to. Much like the charge of an atom! We are naturally drawn to the things that we like and will over time become more skilled in those areas. So why encourage STEM for all girls?

As old George Jones would probably say, “It’s about the choice”. The issue with STEM and girls is not about the preference of science versus math versus history versus reading. The issue is the choice.
Very often as teachers, parents, and people who love those short people who don’t vote, we spend time developing their preferences. We make slime, we cut up frogs, we go to museums, and aquariums, and conservatories, and generally work our tails off ensuring interests are nourished and fed. Hey, I’m not knocking this. What I am saying is that there is a ceiling on preference. We all have our hardwired likes and dislikes. These things are dictated by deeply embedded components of the human body, like our DNA and brains and guts. Choice is another matter.

Choices are made, but their very nature is created by our greater world. In my experience in the STEM world, there were far fewer women in my field, there were far fewer female leaders, maternity leave was pretty stinky, and I often felt alone. My choices were all colored by these facts.
With my series, Serafina Loves Science!, I have chosen to work at the level of the little girls to expand choice. I have attempted to create stories about a little girl who is “making nerdy happen”. Serafina goes about her everyday life with a singular passion: science! She uses theory and construct and noxious chemicals to navigate her own life.

Societal change is something that takes place over long periods of time. Even though we have lots of fabulous momentum in the direction toward empowering little girls in the STEM fields, we are not there yet. We have to create change all levels. We have to expand the amount of choices little girls have in STEM. And little girls need to see themselves in those choices. They need to see themselves in a silly book character named Serafina to feel good about “making nerdy happen.”

About Serafina Loves Science! The series is middle grade fiction that focuses on an eleven-year-old girl named Serafina Sterling. Serafina is just like all other eleven-year-olds who have to deal with issues like annoying older brothers, cliques at school, and parents who restrict her use of noxious chemicals. Serafina is trying to figure it out, much like all of her friends. But she has a little secret… Serafina loves science! Her passion for all things scientific helps her make new friends and figure the old ones out, understand her family, invent new devices for space travel, and appreciate the basic principles of the universe.

About me: I live in Texas with my husband and two daughters. The Serafina Loves Science! series was inspired in part by my own career path. The other part of my inspiration is my two little girls. I hope to make this world a more equitable and opportune place for my daughters one silly story at a time!

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