Gender and STEAM: no shift required

Coordinator: Deborah Tatar

In the past thirty years, several waves of opportunity have come successively closer to realizing Papert’s vision of a world in which children can self-actualize as owners and creators of technology. Each wave, starting with Logo, has had strengths and limitations and while some have had considerable reach (FIRST Lego League, for example), none have as of yet become fixtures of childhood. Now, part of the opportunity that comes with a switch from a STEM to a STEAM perspective is the chance to build foundations for female—and more widespread male—participation in computing on a wide, humane platform in which the outside world is involving, inviting and discovering rather than persuading, cajoling and selling. In particular, recent tools associated with the Maker or DIY (“Do It Yourself”) movement have the potential to increase embodied, craft-oriented performance-focused behavior. Girls (and a range of boys) can now create inexpensive personalized, crafted objects that cause them to rub elbows with technology and technological thinking without having to first (or ever) label themselves as one of “them,” the kind of person that actually likes technology. They can tinker, both with creations and identity. They can develop skills which will help them no matter what they go on to do, and their relationship to those skills can change over time. The crucial opportunity, ironically, lies in the relative unimportance of the technology in defining the students’ projects. Although tools such as Leah Buechley’s sewable electronic components are new, the opportunities they present resonate with older successes. They have social and technological properties that have been to some extent lost with the rise of personal computing. In particular, the world of young people has traditionally included legitimate peripheral participation in activities that could be pursued in a more complex fashion by adults. Sewable electronic components permit just such activities. The threshholds to using sewable electronics, in particular, are very low. While some adult encouragement and guidance is required, the level is more comparable to that required for lanyard-making, crocheting, knitting or embroidery than most interactions with electronics. The physical dexterity to sew with large needles and thick thread is in most cases attained by early elementary age, and, at $2 for a sensor or actuator, simple projects are affordable by most families in the United States. Often tweens are in a position to earn enough money to fund more complex projects through activities such as babysitting. The activities can themselves be social, just as knitting is often a social act, and self-determined. Furthermore, with even modest mastery of the technology, outcomes can be a personal expression on the part of the maker. Not only can many products be worn, but, unlike most computational products, they can be given as unique and personal gifts from one person to another. At the same time, the desire to create more complex creations leads directly to a simple, and still relatively inexpensive path to computing. This is all very exciting. But note that supporting this requires an interdisciplinary perspective in which we pay more attention to the sheep than to the shearing. We would like more women to engage in STEM fields. There are a number of reasons for this. Some reasons have to do with the women themselves. It seems to modern American society wrong or unfair if women do not participate in equal numbers in elite vocations Some reasons have to do with various perceptions of the benefits of involving women in STEM activities. For example, NCWIT promotes on its brochures research showing that mixed-gender teams work better than single-gender teams. The idea is that women should be involved in computing because they are needed. Notice that, in a brute force way, the desire to involve women equally stems from the belief that girls are essentially the same as boys, while the desire to persuade that they are needed entails the idea that women are somehow essentially different, that a women’s perspective is a special contribution. So what are we women, and why are we wanted? This is very confusing, even if one considers women as a coherent group. It’s more confusing if one considers the range of women and young girls, their hopes, dreams, and prospects. It is yet more confusing when one considers the range of high-school, college and work-place environments that we or they might encounter. These confusions themselves can contribute to the idea that participation in STEM fields is difficult. Furthermore, it is quite possible that participation in STEM fields IS quite difficult intellectually, emotionally, and pragmatically, especially for people who are on a different path. We would never say that all boys in society should become lawyers, and, likewise, we should assume neither that all girls would be better off if they went into STEM fields nor that society would be better off it they did. We want women to go into STEM fields, and the strategies we use most often are persuasion and focused demonstration. We should learn from one of the most successful educational enterprises of all: the enterprise whereby middle class (white) toddlers learn to love reading by being read to. The child appreciates the ball-of-wax in which s/he is held, talked with an entertained with world knowledge and pictures. If no other problem intervenes (such as dyslexia), one of the best predictors of reading in elementary school is being read to as a toddler. The solution I am proposing to women’s involvement in STEM is not to encourage them explicitly at all, but instead to develop a deeply interdisciplinary approach to what constitutes the STEAM enterprise. In this approach, the technology is not there for itself, and its presence is unremarkable. Supporting the girl in activities that she chooses to do is central, and exposing her to a world in which these activities frequently involve technology use is a key ingredient. The challenge to this is that we live in a world which values the shearing more than the sheep—but the kind of girl we want in the STEM enterprise senses that.