STEAM is everywhere, and you’ve probably heard about its importance in kids learning to work in today’s world and prepare for the future. Despite this, it still seems hard to spot women in these fields. A survey by Junior Achievement found only 9% of girls ages 13-17 were interested in pursuing a STEM career, and a study published in Mathematics found girls see themselves as less capable in the area.

As a parent, how can you encourage your daughter to love STEAM? Start broadening her horizons. Metro Atlanta has a strong STEAM world and role models for your daughter to follow.

Only have sons? This information still applies! In today’s society, anyone has the opportunity to pursue any career, and being open-minded helps kids appreciate their own abilities differently.

Atlanta Parent talked to three amazing women in STEAM fields for tips on how to inspire interest among our community’s youth.

Start Early

Impress upon your young children the fun of STEAM concepts before they are intimidated off such topics with school and grades. Activities don’t have to be structured to be valuable.

Take inspiration in the outdoors, suggests Meisa Salaita, the Co-founder of Science ATL. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, her family has spent more time outside. “When you take the dog for a walk, there is so much to see if you just look,” she says. “We have a dogwood tree in the front yard, and it has pink and white flowers, so you can ask, ‘How is that happening?’ Together, you can learn about tree grafting. You just have to notice. Encourage your children to pay attention to their surroundings – stop to look at weird, interesting anomalies in the world around you that make you ask questions.”

Grow with STEAM

As a parent, continue to encourage your child by following their interests. “As your kids age, they may stop pointing out weird bugs, but now, your kid is interested in cooking. Ask questions: ‘Why does an egg go from clear to white when you’re frying it? What’s happening?’ Shift your questions to where their interests are,” Salaita says.

Follow your children’s interests when they reach high school and start brainstorming career paths. Maxine Cain founded STEM Atlanta Women to support middle and high school girls, college students and recent college graduates in underserved and underrepresented communities in Atlanta. She suggests parents not try to push their child into a particular area. “STEM is everywhere and in everything. Allow children to tell their story,” she says. “If they say, ‘I want to create my own makeup line;’ then, you can ask: ‘Do you have a chemist or a scientist lined up? How are you going to make the makeup?’ In every single aspect of life, we touch STEM. There will be some form of STEM in the career they’re interested in.”

Encourage Curiosity

As an adult, you may be used to accepting things as they are, but kids love to ask questions. Questions show your child’s curiosity. Even if you don’t know how to respond in the moment, take note of what your child is interested in, so you can explore the topic together.

“Encourage the curiosity of kids, and get answers when you can,” Salaita says. “Asking questions and making observations are enough to spark interest. There are going to be kids who take that and do their own digging. As long as you encourage curiosity, you don’t have to have the answer.”

Use apps and resources to find answers. Salaita recommends Seek by iNaturalist, Scientific American and National Geographic.

Change Your Mindset

If you don’t love STEAM or believe you have the capacity to understand concepts, it can be intimidating to show enthusiasm for a subject you dislike, even if you don’t want to pass that hatred onto your child.

“Have an open and growth mindset,” Cain says. “The future state of your child’s life is relative to technology and innovation. Most children are not listening to what you say, but they’re watching what you do. I encourage parents to be neutral and to think about the growth and the future of their child. Technology changes every single day, and you want your child to thrive in that world or they won’t; there is no in-between.”

Paula Garcia Todd, Global Strategic Manager at Pharma Solutions, grew up in a family of engineers, which inspired her to pursue engineering. Now, her daughter loves history, a subject she knows little about. “In the age that we live in today, we can rely on the internet to search for interesting things. It’s a journey that allows me to learn with my daughter as well. Parents should consider themselves as students,” she recommends. “Bring out that curiosity and discover along with them. Instead of feeling intimidated, take this opportunity to learn with your kids.”

Beware of Stereotypes

One of the reasons for the gender gap, according to the American Association
of University Women, is that STEM fields are often viewed as masculine. Being aware of these stereotypes may be a start to encouraging your daughter to consider STEAM as being for her, not just for her brother.

“Media around us presents us with a lot of unintentional stereotypes, and they can be hard to shake,” Salaita says. “When you’re holiday shopping, you shouldn’t think of just getting the robot toy for your son; it can also be for your daughter. Encourage curiosity in your daughters as much as your sons. It’s a constant check I make sure that I’m doing. Because of those stereotypes, it may come naturally with your boys, but be mindful that you’re doing the same thing with your daughter.”

While sitting on an advisory board for Penn State to help underrepresented students, Garcia Todd realized students needed exposure to STEAM before college. She started helping within her community by visiting elementary, middle and high schools. “I would cold-call schools: ‘I’m a chemical engineer, and I’d love to tell students about engineering with a hands-on experience to get kids excited,’” she says. “I found that it was not girls who would question my presence, but boys who’d ask, ‘Are you really an engineer?’ We have to normalize that there are women in STEM.” Due to the pandemic, she has expanded her reach with Zoom presentations.

Garcia Todd recommends being mindful of the language you use. “We may hold biases we’re not aware of. For example, we automatically say, ‘he,’ such as, ‘This scientist figured this out, and he…’ We’re assuming the scientist was a man. If we want girls to have the freedom to choose their career, we also want boys to have the freedom to choose fields that are female-oriented, such as nursing. Language can be very powerful in an inclusive mindset for kids about what a scientist should look like.”

Find Role Models

Research female role models who inspire your daughter. There are women in many different areas who will have relevance to her life, either in the products she uses or the career she wants to pursue. “Katherine Johnson was able to do amazing work at NASA; ’Hidden Figures’ is an inspiring movie,” Cain says. “Madam C. J. Walker – without her, a lot of African American hair products wouldn’t exist. Kathryn Wijnaldum is an African American Navy warship captain, and she leads and is at the helm one of the largest naval warships in the nation.”

As a chemist, Salaita is inspired by other chemists. “I’m impressed with Jennifer Doudna. She won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and she worked on gene editing with CRISPR. Astronauts are always the epitome of inspiration when it comes to scientific exploration, as they are going out into the unknown. Ellen Ochoa was the Johnson Space Center’s first Hispanic director.”

Use Resources

In the 21st century, we are lucky to live in a world where a wealth of information is available to us at the touch of a button. Excite your child with online resources, books, movies and shows depicting STEAM education in a creative and fun way.

Metro Atlanta has many companies who offer classes or camps for children or adults to help your family learn more. STEM Atlanta Women’s STEM In the City, Summerhill is a digital and creative space offering a collaborative environment for hands-on project-based learning. “We offer all types of initiatives to focus on the whole child,” Cain says. “We offer the same courses to parents and grandparents, so that if they’re not familiar with these concepts, they can learn as well. It becomes an exciting and engaging conversation because they’re both learning the same thing.”

“As a parent, you don’t have to be an engineer to expose your child to STEAM concepts,” Garcia Todd says. She suggests searching for websites, books or TV shows that can inspire your kids, and if you get stuck, reach out to your child’s teacher. “‘Mission Unstoppable’ is a Saturday morning show that follows women in different STEM fields, such as cyber security or 3D printing. Expose kids to these different opportunities, and the earlier you can do it, the better,” she adds.

– Emily Webb

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