A couple of weeks ago, my husband Doug went to our daughter’s elementary school with a large carton full of pipe cleaners, pom-poms, marbles, aluminum foil, copper wire, string, tape, straws, popsicle sticks, paper cups, rubber bands, erasers, baking soda, index cards, test tubes, Petri dishes, small lengths of PVC pipe, and a flat of various potted flowers. The teachers had prepared the first graders for his visit by reading and discussing a story about a girl who needs to figure out how to pollinate a plant and, with the help of her aunt, an agricultural engineer, designs a hand pollinator. During his first visit, Doug went to each of the three first grade classes and talked to the students about engineering and technology. The first graders studied the shapes of flowers—impatiens, petunias, salvia—and tested how well pipe cleaners, pom-poms, marbles, erasers, foil, and other materials would transfer pollen. They recorded and discussed their findings in preparation for the next lesson.
The engineering unit was Doug’s culminating project for a twenty-week parent leadership class that we both recently completed. He applied for and received a grant from his employer that provided all the lesson plans and materials for the project. In consultation with the first grade teachers, he selected the curriculum on insects and pollination to complement the entomology science unit that the first graders had completed earlier in the year.
In describing why he chose to do an engineering project in our daughter’s class, Doug wrote about the gender disparity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Statistics show that females continue to lag behind their male counterparts in STEM careers. For example, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce Report, the STEM workforce is only 24 percent women, compared to the 48 percent of women total in the U.S. workforce, a statistic that has remained unchanged for ten years. The field of engineering shows an even greater gender disparity. Only about 20 percent of engineering majors in the year 2000 were female, and a mere 9 percent of engineering jobs were held by women.
One of the factors that lies at heart of this gender disparity, researchers argue, is the degree of confidence that females have in their science, math, and engineering abilities and aptitude. For example, a recent study found that some women’s lack of confidence was “the main contributor to the gender gap between the number of males and females studying engineering and following engineering careers.” Confidence was also cited as a key factor in girls’ success in Encouraging Girls in Math and Science, a guide released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences: “Students who are more confident about their abilities in math and science are more likely to choose elective math and science courses in high school and more likely to select math and science-related college majors and careers.” And many researchers agree that the time to build this confidence is during a girl’s early years.
On his second visit to first grade, Doug gave the students models of flowers (made of test tubes, Petri dishes, and PVC pipe to resemble the shapes of real flowers) with “pollen” (baking soda) as well as bags of various materials. The first graders were then given the task of constructing a hand pollinator out of the materials they had tested during the first lesson. This time, the pollinator needed to collect pollen from inside the specific type of flower each child had been assigned. Taking into consideration the flower’s structure, the students adjusted the lengths of their pollinators’ handles, selecting materials based on size, shape, and degree of flexibility. Once the pollinators were built, the children tested them, collecting the baking soda pollen on their ends and attempting to transfer it. In the time remaining, they made alterations and perfected their designs for optimal pollen transfer.
My daughter wanted to work on a pollinator for what she considered to be the hardest flower, the bent Bucket Orchid, and she worked diligently on a design that would go around the crook in the pipe to the pollen. She made several different designs, testing them, but in the end, she discovered that her pollinators weren’t picking up noticeable pollen. As she ran out of time, she faced the fact that her pollinator design didn’t work. And we didn’t tell her that her design was successful because she knew the truth. And because feeding children platitudes is not the way to build their confidence.
When researchers talk about girls’ confidence in STEM fields, I don’t think they mean the kind of confidence that supposedly comes from boosting children’s self-esteem by telling them that they’re doing a great job, even when they’re not. In fact, studies have shown that unwarranted praise can cause students to become risk-averse and less self-motivated. Bright girls are especially “vulnerable to the inverse power of praise.”
True confidence comes from doing something with your own hands or your own mind, figuring something out, making something genuinely useful or beautiful. It comes from engineering a fairy house or a hand pollinator that works, from solving a difficult math problem or puzzle, from fixing something that has broken or adapting something to a new purpose. Confidence comes not from praise, but from true engagement with the world, from taking risks and failing, and from experiencing success firsthand.
Later, at home, my daughter asked for the pollinator materials again, and she designed a new hand pollinator for the Bucket Orchid. And this time, it worked. And she didn’t need anyone to tell her that she had succeeded.
In his report about his project, Doug also wrote about the roles of fathers in their daughters’ lives. Research shows that girls whose fathers are actively involved in their lives are more successful. Confidence, it turns out, also comes from fathers. A study in England found that children who spend large amounts of time with their fathers have higher IQs, a difference that is still discernible even thirty years later. And specifically, children whose fathers visit their classrooms and interact with their teachers tend to be more successful academically.
These are all reasons why Doug spent two afternoons building hand pollinators with sixty first graders. But there are other reasons, too. Here are just seven of them:
1. The child in one of the first grade classes who has put all of his hand pollinator handouts and diagram of the parts of a flower into a three-ring binder and has started to collect flower specimens for further study.
2. My four-year-old beginning sentences with “I have a hypothesis,” and his seven-year-old sister replying, “Let’s go test that hypothesis.” (Need I even mention that the four-year-old has already designed three of his own hand pollinators?)
3. The conversation that I recently had with a fellow mom about a local STEM magnet school where she was thinking of enrolling her son. When I told her I had visited the school, she said, “Well of course you wouldn’t enroll your daughter there.” When I asked why not, she said, “Because girls aren’t interested in math and science.”
4. The diagram that my daughter drew of a device that—were she to become a cobbler and set up shop in her second-story bedroom—would lower shoes down to customers standing in our yard.
5. The things that she asks for. “I need a strip of cloth,” she says. “I need a piece of aluminum foil. I need some foam and some tape and a glass full of hot water.” It turns out she is reading a science book on heat and wants to do an experiment on conduction. “I don’t like it when the books give you the answers,” she tells me. “I want to find the answers myself.” (And, of course, once the experiment is complete, the glass becomes a vase for flowers.)
6. The flowers that we have all begun to see in new ways; suddenly we are struck by their delicate fluted throats, their bends and kinks. “Look at that flower,” my four-year-old says. “How would you make a hand pollinator for that?”
7. And this, from my daughter: “I wonder what Dad is going to come teach my class in second grade.”
And all the other reasons we don’t yet know.
First grade ends tomorrow. My daughter’s plans for the summer? “Read lots of books, work on math problems, and design some new hand pollinators.”
We’re not trying to make her into a scientist or engineer or mathematician. We only want to make it possible for her to become those things if she so chooses. We want that path to stay open. And it begins here, right now, as so many things do. It begins with fathers and daughters. It begins with flowers and first graders.