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On Raising a Scientist (Who Happens to Be a Girl)

It started when my daughter was around three: people letting us know that the things she’s most interested in aren’t meant for girls. At the time, these remarks were directed at my husband and me and revolved around her love of trains.

She really, really loved trains. From Thomas the Tank Engine to the real McCoy, she was all in. So, we rode trains, went to model train museums, made sure we arrived at train stations to watch the commuter rail arrive and depart on the North Shore of Boston. In doing so, we also found ourselves on the receiving end of gendered commentary from both men and women.

“But girls don’t like trains,” a complete stranger took the time to inform me as we stood waiting for a train to pull into a nearby station one day. By then, I’d heard variations on this too many times.

“And yet, here she is,” I replied, likely a little more tersely than necessary. (We all have our moments — and as a parent and an editor of nonfiction for young readers, this was one of mine.)

Thomas and his class-driven little world is (blissfully) a thing of the past, and instead she’s moved on to science, math, and engineering. Now ten-years-old, my daughter is a walking, talking robotics-loving girl. The loss of Thomas isn’t the only thing that’s changed, though. Because these days, the commentary on her interests isn’t aimed predominantly at my husband and me anymore — it’s aimed squarely at her. Grownups expressing surprise that she likes science and math — or telling her that girls don’t really like these subjects. Her peers teasing her about doing math for fun.

sam_3620 A SeaPerch underwater rover built by this "girl scientist."

What keeps her chugging along? I wish I could say that it’s the wealth of nonfiction books in our home. But in reality, it was the PBS Kids SciGirls television show played on repeat, where she gets to watch actual girls doing actual science. It was the Ivy & Bean series, which proved over and over again that being your own wonderful (and occasionally maniacal) self is a good thing. And it’s the Boxcar Children books, whose constellation of Alden family kids were makers long before the term maker was coined.

So, yes, here she is. And she’s clearly not alone. Let’s face it: girls are as interested in these STEM areas of study as boys are. Everyone is interested in them, right? It’s cool and fascinating stuff! Just the most cursory research will tell you, though, that while girls do just as well in science and math classes as boys, by the time they’re out of school they only make up about 29% of the workforce in STEM fields.

This strikes me as a failure on our part as a society. We educate our girls in STEM, but then remind them — in ways both subtle and anything but — that they don’t belong there.

We’ve got to do better than this. The more perspectives and talents we have at the table in the realms of science and math, the more both areas will advance. Math and science are just as much the domain of girls as they are of boys. You’ll find the living proof of it at my house, her stuff strewn all over the dining room table as she builds another robot.

Cynthia Platt

Cynthia Platt is the author of three picture books and one chapter book, Parker Bell and the Science of Friendship. She also teaches at Montserrat College of Art and writes for the Khan Academy Kids learning app.

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