October 2, 2017

More and More Girls Head Toward Science Projects As STEM Educational Opportunities Increase in Area

Girls in the fourth grade at Stuart Country Day School learn about coding as well as electricity in their STEM class. They combined the two by using the application Scratch to program electronics, and used a toolkit called Makey Makey to test circuit connections with different materials. In this photo, the girls are sharing the activities and games they develop with girls in other grades in the Lower School.

By Jean Stratton

As a young girl, Katherine Johnson loved to count. “I counted everything,” recalls the 99-year-old former NASA mathematician, whose remarkable story was prominently featured in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures. “I counted steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed — anything that could be counted, I did.”

Along with Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, Johnson made exceptional contributions to the NASA space program, starting in the 1950s. The fact that all three women were African American made the challenges they faced in a male-dominated profession even more daunting.

Not only did they persevere, they succeeded. Their dedication and extraordinary mathematical skills have not only been highlighted in Hidden Figures, but by Johnson having received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the nation’s highest civilian honor), and most recently with the opening of the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility, the state-of-the-art laboratory for innovative research and development, supporting NASA’s missions.

Role Models

Role models, to be sure, as is another outstanding scientist, Julie Webster. She served as spacecraft operations team manager for the 20-year Cassini mission to orbit the planet Saturn. This project was a combined endeavor of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency, which came to a successful conclusion on September 15. The mission was able to discover important and previously unknown information about the planet, its famous rings, and its moons.

Johnson, Webster, and the others are among those most prominently known for their work in the field of science. Of course, there are many others: physicians and surgeons, astronauts, marine biologists, geologists, and more.

Nevertheless, professions in what is known as the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and science) field remain today predominantly male-dominated.

“There is a significant gender gap in STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math,” says Risa Engel, director of communications at Princeton’s Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart. “According to a recent report by General Electric economists, the lack of women in technology and engineering is holding back the pace at which these sectors can advance. Women make up just 19 percent of computer programmers and only 14 percent of engineers. This under-representation corresponds to leadership roles as well.”

And, as the GE report
concludes, “In the digital industrial future, companies and countries that cannot close the gender gap will not succeed.”

In addition, points out Engel, “There is a significant gap for women-owned businesses. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, just 36 percent of privately-owned businesses are women-owned.”

Opportunities for Girls

So — although women have made important strides in these fields over the years, much more remains to be accomplished.

Recognizing this, schools, organizations, foundations, and businesses are firmly supporting opportunities for girls and young women to take on leadership roles and to aspire to whatever careers and professions, including science, that their abilities enable them to undertake.

In the Princeton area, Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, Villa Victoria Academy — both all-girls schools — and scienceSeeds, a science-based organization focusing on encouraging children’s interest in and curiosity about science, are strongly engaged in helping girls reach their potential and “close the Girl Gap” in scientific endeavors.

Stuart, which has had a STEM program since 2011, held an all-day “Conference for Risk-takers and Change-makers” last April.
Presented by The Stuart Center for Girls’ Leadership, “Lead Like A Girl,” it featured 85 speakers, with more than 50 presentations, workshops, and panels.

As Head of School, Dr. Patty L. Fagin points out, “As experts in educating girls, at Stuart we know that it is crucial to educate young women to know they are powerful, that they can affect change, and their voices are important — particularly in male-dominated arenas.”

“STEM for girls at Stuart began with a simple question, ‘What will girls need to lead into the 21st Century?’” explains Alicia Testa, Stuart STEM/SIFE (Stuart Institute for Finance and Economics).

Earliest Ages

Girls are in involved in STEM from the earliest ages at Stuart, she points out. “We nurture their interest in STEM and keep them engaged from pre-school throughout the Lower, Middle, and Upper School years, both in the classroom and outside the classroom.”

“Even in pre-school, the kids are involved in STEM-type activities. They really start as 2- and 3-year-olds, looking at cause and effect, sorting by color and size, and counting.

“In the Lower School, K through fourth grade, we focus on hands-on math, and even the youngest kids enjoy our MakerSpace room, which emphasizes using technology to build and create items, including 3-D printers to create objects, such as small animal figures, tiny trees, and replicas of human cells. We have technological specialists in Lower, Middle, and Uppers Schools.”

All the teaching is interdisciplinary, continues Testa. “When a Middle School class was studying Mexican culture, they designed items in the MakerSpace relating to what they were studying. Our goal is to teach the subject, and to utilize the knowledge to go deep into the lesson. For example, in connection with religion classes, the girls used the laser-cutter to create cardboard cathedrals.”

All Stuart students have opportunities to use iPads in school, and from fifth through 12th grade, each girl has her own iPad.

The STEM Endorsement, a rigorous program, which can be an important recommendation on a transcript for a college application, is available for students seeking to go further into STEM inquiry. Requirements include four years of math, four of science, two computer science electives, and an independent research project in the STEM field. Research projects have included a variety of in-depth investigations requiring thoughtful analysis and exploration.

“Digital Citizenship”

In an age when opportunities for digital diversion seem never-ending, “digital citizenship” is a focus at Stuart. “We talk about using technology wisely, balancing it with proper use of social technology, and communicating properly through email,” explains Testa.

“For example, juniors in the U.S. history class create blogs on the subject and learn how to create academically-correct reports on the internet. They connect with other schools and comment respectfully about others’ blogs.”

Stuart is known for its demanding and wide-ranging curriculum as well as activities providing leadership opportunities for girls. As Engel notes, “We also have special programs in finance and economics, leadership opportunities, and athletics. It has been shown that participating in competitive sports has a positive effect on leadership.

“We have had excellent support from the administration and the board for all of these projects and for STEM. We have also received a grant from the E.E. Ford Foundation for STEM for girls. Because of that grant, we were able to build the STEM Endorsement program.”

Everyone at Stuart is proud that so many of its 2017 graduating class intends to pursue professions in the STEM field, she adds. “Thirty-five percent of our 2017 graduates planned to enter STEM department degree programs in college. They understand that the future of the world depends on technology.”

“One of the things that attracted me to Stuart was that it was encouraging young women to be the best they could be — whatever that may be,” says Testa. “They are not afraid to go out into the world, take risks, learn from their mistakes, and change the world, to make it better! And STEM is a big part of that.”

Science Program

Villa Victoria Academy in Ewing has been educating girls for 80 years. Encouraging them to achieve all they can is a priority. Though the school does not have a specifically-titled STEM program, it has always had a strong science curriculum.

“Our science program includes all of the core science classes and science electives,” says Colleen White, Villa Victoria director of admissions. “Science classes are offered on the college prep, honors, and advanced placement level. In addition, as we are a small school, we might have two to five students in a particularly advanced science class, leading to full immersion in the subject and no need to share supplies or equipment when conducting labs.”

Science study begins in earnest in the sixth grade when girls undertake hands-on lab work, explains science teacher Jennifer Spivey. “There is a required science class in each of the middle school grades. The labs are popular with the girls; in particular, the labs where they are building, which would be the sixth and seventh grade sciences. Our middle school students also study robotics within their science classes.

”At the high school level, Villa requires three years of science to graduate but many of our girls take a fourth year of science.”

Indeed, many of the girls become very interested and take on extra science assignments, she adds. “Villa has its required courses along with our electives such as environmental science, AP chemistry, AP biology, and AP physics. Many of the students go above and beyond and take extra science classes. And many of our girls go into science-related fields after graduation.”

Two Villa Victoria graduates, Sara Sheffer and Melissa Simmons, recently received the respected New College of Florida Isermann Medal. This honor provides an opportunity for academically-talented out-of-state students to obtain hands-on experience in mathematics and the natural sciences.


As they move forward in science, the students at Villa Victoria believe they are having a positive impact for girls in science and scientific career opportunities for young women, points out Spivey.

“In every single science class I teach, there is one constant with the Villa girls; they always want to take the concept a step further. This means they are challenging themselves. I always let them run with it, and the results are always terrific. They are self-starters, and very determined, creative, and clever when it comes to science. Science is definitely one of our strongest subjects here at Villa.”

Adds White: “As an all-girls school, in Villa’s 80 year history, our girls have always been challenged to do ‘whatever you want to do or dream you can do’. There have never been limits put on our girls, and it’s an environment where they just naturally think that they can take any class and meet any challenge.

“Our girls have always gone to the traditionally male-dominated fields, such as science, medicine, law, engineering, and technology because they are confident that they can do the work. We teach our girls that they can do anything and that they can, and should, go out and change the world.”

Another important science-based enterprise is scienceSeeds. Founded in Princeton in 2008, it is a science enrichment program that seeks to engage children and their parents in discovering the mysteries of our world. It offers after-school classes, workshops, weekend “maker” sessions, summer camps, and science-themed parties in an inviting, family-friendly environment.

“Our programs are targeted toward children who are between the ages of 4 and 14,” explains founder and director Michal Melamede. “Our youngest students can participate in half-day programs which are specifically designed for 4 to 6-year-olds.”

Exploration and Discovery

“At scienceSeeds, we believe that science starts with questions about the world — the kinds of questions that young children ask their parents and teachers every day.

“Our goal is to show young children that science and scientific thinking entail experimentation — processes through which kids (and their parents) can understand and answer questions about the world around them,” she continues. “Our activities dispel the myth that science is difficult and inaccessible. We demonstrate to parents and kids that science is a part of their every day experience, and engage parents and their children in an on-going process of exploration and discovery.”

Science is the disciplined application of curiosity, Melamede points out. “When children experience science through building and try to configure a circuit out of some wires, batteries, and paper clips, they make the connection between theory and practice, and realize that science is everywhere around them.

“From the initial WOW!, where everything seems like magic, our students observe, experiment, and learn the science behind the magic until that AHA! moment when all the information coalesces into understanding. Then the students harness the power of their new knowledge to make something new and different: the COOL! stage. Our students become absorbed in the process of learning by doing.”

Classes at scienceSeeds are all STEM/STEAM (science, technology, art, and math)-focused, and a full array of manufacturing tools, including 3D printers, a laser cutter, soldering tools, and others are all available, she adds.

“Our programs are centered around themes; for example, Harry Potter Science, Physics of Motion, Candy Science, and regardless of the program, we always try to incorporate all the aspects of STEM/STEAM into the curriculum. In all our classes, we emphasize learning through our mistakes, and that when something doesn’t work there is value in figuring out what happened and fixing it. Realizing that failure is OK, that you often have to try something multiple times for it to succeed, that thinking about what you are going to do before doing it, are all skills we emphasize throughout the program.”

“Girls Only”

scienceSeeds is available for boys and girls, with additional “Girls Only” programs. These have been very successful, Melamede reports, and the girls are very enthusiastic about the projects.

“In our experience, the girls often get more excited about our projects and need less convincing to try new things than the boys. We are excited to see so many girls at scienceSeeds who have a love for science and technology, who express their ideas fearlessly, and defend their projects with passion. Hopefully, as these young women go through school, they will maintain their passion for science and pursue jobs in STEM/STEAM.

“We believe that all children have a natural curiosity about the world around them and how things work. We try to harness the curiosity and help them apply it into hands-on experimentation where they learn by doing.

“Each child is different,” she adds. “Some love taking things apart and seeing what is on the inside that makes it work; some are more artistic and love to create things with few guidelines or restrictions; others love the projects where they can see something simple — like popsicle sticks, tape, and a rubber band jump across the table. They are all curious about technology, and love seeing the laser cutter or 3D printers at work.”

The innate mystery, excitement, and creative problem-solving offered in science projects is naturally intriguing to children, and the projects at scienceSeeds reinforce this.

“We strive to motivate and engage young minds, encourage out-of-the-box thinking and promote the natural acquisition of a scientific vocabulary. We help children understand that getting wrong answers is part of discovering the right ones. We will provide an environment that motivates all children to engage in on-going investigation both individually and collaboratively. We hope to make your child’s journey entertaining, rewarding, and enriching.”