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Storytelling in STEM – can changing the narrative (finally) give girls a voice?

Read Time 9 Mins
Learning & Development

The absence of story in STEM is often cited as a reason for a lack of female participation, but it’s time we look more closely at the systemic absence of girls and women from the story.

On a dark and stormy night in May of 1816, a young Mary Godwin bears a novel that would solidify her place in history as the mother of science fiction.

The story reveals itself to Mary on a trip to Lake Geneva in the village of Cologny, where she and her group of friends plan to spend the summer months. The group includes Mary’s partner, the poet Percy Shelley, as well as poet Lord Byron and his personal physician John Polidori. The grim weather confines them indoors where they engage in conversation, reading ghost stories late into the night and discussing scientific theories, particularly galvanism – experiments with electricity that could make the legs of dead frogs twitch. One particular night, Lord Byron proposes a competition to see which of them could write the best ghost story.

Encumbered with writer’s block and unable to sleep, Mary recalls having a waking nightmare: “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy half-vital motion.” With little writing experience, Mary writes a story that combines her macabre fascination with life and death with the scientific theories and ethics of re-animation.

The book, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, is published anonymously in 1818, her name later appearing in the 1823 edition. At just 18 years old, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, unbeknown to her (and most of the world), invents science fiction.

There’s no A in STEM – or is there?

As pioneering as Mary Shelley was in connecting art and science (and being a woman at that!), there remains an intrinsic notion that story does not belong in science. “Because narrative is not reducible to mathematics, writes Professor Roald Hoffmann, “it is not given its due in our scientific world.” Yet some people are trying to continue what Mary Shelley did some 200 years ago.

Programs such as the STEAM initiative, which is attempting to integrate the arts and sciences (the added A stands for Arts), and the Next Generation Science Standards – which helps students think more critically about the interconnectedness between the many branches of science and the world as a whole – are trying to foster the intricate nature between the humanities and the sciences for boys and girls alike.

The belief that girls are inherently stronger in English/language arts and social studies than they are in math and science is not supported by the data. Click To Tweet

Lev Fruchter, a computer science teacher at NYC Nest+m, a public K-12 school in New York City, has found great success in using literature as a tool to teach math, touting it a “great way to make science, technology, engineering and math ideas accessible and concrete to learners who might not think those kind of technical studies are for them.” He actively uses texts by Ursula K. Le Guin, Madeleine L’Engle, Octavia Butler, and Frank Stockton in his math lessons, which he says is a “live literary experience in which the story itself is embodying the concepts.”

While the discourse around storytelling in science is clearly an important one, it has long been known as a “girl problem.” Many studies concerning female participation in STEM  find that girls are more interested in liberal arts and pursue it because STEM is just not ‘creative’ enough. Would similar studies of boys find that they pursue STEM because they don’t care about creativity, or because they do and believe that STEM can actually have creative qualities?

Mary Kenny, for example, believes the reason girls aren’t interested in STEM is that it’s too focused on facts and numbers and not focused enough on human impact and creativity. But blanket statements like this do nothing to challenge the status quo. The belief that girls are inherently stronger in English/language arts and social studies than they are in math and science is not supported by the data. According to the American Association of University Women, high school girls and boys perform equally well in math and science. And in direct comparison to Kenny’s statement, a study done by the Girl Scout Research Institute, Generation STEM, found that of the girls who identified interest in STEM, 92% of them wanted to make a difference in the world and 76% wanted to do work involving creativity (compared to 82% and 76% of girls not interested in STEM).

Another study conducted by Microsoft found that girls and young women in the US are deterred from pursuing careers in STEM from an early age, often due to misconceptions and stereotypes about STEM that make those careers seem like an unnatural fit. Only 37% of the girls said they thought STEM jobs could be creative or help the world.

Changing the narrative

As beneficial as the interweaving of story and science is to making STEM more broadly accessible, there’s a fine line between believing that girls aren’t interested in STEM because of the absence of story and believing that girls aren’t interested in STEM because of the systemic absence of girls and women from the story.

As much as some can equate STEM to facts, numbers, and cold data, Dr Raychelle Burks, an analytical chemist and Postdoctoral Research Associate at Doane College, turns the stereotype on its head, claiming that “science is about facts and people,” and that even if it was true that girls preferred the “human factor,” then “women would certainly be drawn to science.”

There's a fine line between believing that girls aren’t interested in STEM because of the absence of story and believing that girls aren’t interested in STEM because of the systemic absence of girls and women from the story. Click To Tweet

We all contain multitudes – layers of identities and interests. Girls are no different. There’s no rule that dictates if a girl loves painting or writing, she can’t also love chemistry, or that if a girl identifies as creative, she can’t also enjoy math. It’s our job as educators, parents, leaders, etc. to make them feel empowered, not put them in boxes. Yet time and again, we are failing. Do girls love STEM and we just tell them they don’t, using age-old essentialism as a way to steer the discourse away from what actually matters? If the stereotype that STEM jobs are uncreative and low-impact isn’t accurate, why do so many girls believe it? Where exactly are we going wrong?

Dr. Katherine (Katie) Mack, a theoretical astrophysicist at Melbourne University says that “Gender-based socialization, and messages [like Kenny’s] that tell girls that science is an unnatural thing for them to do, are incredibly pervasive in our culture. If you want to discuss inherent differences between men’s and women’s brains, first remove all stereotypes, discrimination (subtle or explicit), biased parental expectations, media messages, pressure from teachers, and long-standing gender-based cultural norms, and then tell me about whatever differences you can find, if any.”

You can’t be what you can’t … read?

As a whole, females are notoriously underrepresented in literature. In “Gender in the Twentieth-Century Children’s Books”,  a 2011 study published in Gender & Society, researchers found that males are central characters in 57% of children’s books published in the twentieth century in the US, with just 31% having female central characters. Male animals are central characters in 23% of books per year, the study found, while female animals take center stage in just 7.5% of books.

“The messages conveyed through representation of males and females in books contribute to children’s ideas of what it means to be a boy, girl, man, or woman. The disparities we find point to the symbolic annihilation of women and girls, and particularly female animals, in 20th-century children’s literature, suggesting to children that these characters are less important than their male counterparts,” write the authors of the study. “The disproportionate numbers of males in central roles may encourage children to accept the invisibility of women and girls and to believe they are less important than men and boys, thereby reinforcing the gender system.”

Why does this matter? Research indicates that storytelling can activate many parts of the brain, and in reading about something we effectively mirror experiencing it in real life. Fiction, in particular, gives readers the ability to experience another’s thoughts and feelings. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Social Psychology showed that girls do better on science tests when their textbooks include images of female scientists.

If most of the textbooks and children’s books tell the stories of boys and men accomplishing great things, how will girls ever feel empowered that they too can do great things? Click To Tweet

Yet if most of the textbooks and children’s books tell the stories of boys and men accomplishing great things, how will girls ever feel empowered that they too can do great things? How many instances can you recall seeing a woman scientist in a schoolbook? How many STEM classes tout Mary Shelley as the pioneer of science fiction? How many books have been made about Ada Lovelace, mathematician and history’s first computer programmer, also called the “bride of science,” the “princess of parallelograms,” and the “poet of science,” for her multitudinous interest in uniting abstract mathematics with the world of the imagination? How many people can give you the name of a woman scientist that doesn’t have ‘Curie’ in it?

As Marian Wright Edelman said: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Or in this case – read.

Modern pioneers

While women like Ada Lovelace, Jane Goodall, Mae Jemison, Chien-Shiung Wu, and even Mary Shelley brought women to the forefront of science, the work didn’t stop there.

Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, creator of the design project Beyond Curie, works to make sure women aren’t written out of history. Her project “celebrates the rich history of women kicking ass in STEM fields and turns the image of the stereotypical scientist – old, white, male – on its head. By sharing the faces, stories, and accomplishments of these incredible women, we are giving these heroes the visibility they deserve and inspiring the next generation of innovators.”

Channeling Ada Lovelace, Debbie Sterling, the creator of interactive toy company GoldieBlox, paired storytelling and STEM by producing a construction toy for girls who are curious and love to build. Debbie’s own story starts with a love of math and a high school math teacher urging her to pursue engineering, something she believed involved “some nerdy guy calculating algorithms in front of computer screens all day. Certainly not a path for a creative girl like me!” It was only after she enrolled in classes that she realized engineering was “an amazing outlet for creativity and innovation.”

In literature, children’s author Andrea Beaty, creator of Ada Twist, Scientist and Rosie Revere, Engineer, writes stories “about perseverance and curiosity – because every kid has those traits. If we can help all kids look at it as a human endeavor, they’ll think, ‘Well, I’m curious. Maybe I can try this experiment.’ Or ‘Maybe I can go out and try making things.’ That’s an interesting doorway to take into STEM.”

Another bookish role model for girls is the newest Little Miss character: Little Miss Inventor. The publisher describes her as “intelligent, ingenious and inventive” while author Adam Hargreaves says: “It’s also been nice to write a story that promotes a positive role model and to challenge a stereotype, if only in a small way.”

Other great STEM books for girls include Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires, Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, and the Girls Who Code series. For the science-fiction lovers, there is: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Tales from Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

Remembering, retelling, re-writing

Microsoft’s study found that having visible role models was a contributor to girls’ interest in STEM – girls who knew a woman in STEM were far more likely to say they understand the relevance of STEM, know how to pursue a STEM career and feel powerful in pursuing one. While role models can be teachers, parents, and mentors, they can also be found in the pages of history, as told in the books Finding Wonders by Jeannine Atkins, Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky, and Wonder Women by Sam Maggs.

Are girls really not as interested in STEM as boys, or is that just another story we’ve been weaving? A self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. “Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” says Dr. Gregory Berns, director of Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy in Atlanta. How has this particular story shaped how girls see themselves?

Are girls really not as interested in STEM as boys, or is that just another story we’ve been weaving? A self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Click To Tweet

Stories are powerful. They order the world around us and anchor how we think and feel. On the bright side: we have the power to rewrite them. The past is brimming with fascinating stories of women who, despite all the odds, changed history and proved that girls and women have a rightful place in STEM fields. It’s also filled with stories of women whose accomplishments have been lost to time, whose accolades were taken by male colleagues or husbands or given away intentionally for fear of safety; women who were told science or math were men’s disciplines.

But remember this: Mary Shelley was tasked to write a ghost story and ended up inventing science fiction. Denied a place at Krakow University because she was a woman, Marie Curie pioneered research in radioactivity and won a Nobel Prize. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, medical degree in hand, was still not allowed into the British Medical Register, prompting her to establish the New Hospital for Women. Ada Lovelace was only allowed to learn mathematics due to her mother’s efforts to prevent her from developing her father’s perceived insanity, leading to the creation of the first computer program. Mary Jackson became NASA’s first African-American female engineer after petitioning for the ability to learn next to her white peers.

All women. Once girls. Almost unwritten from the story, they wrote their own instead.