Josephine is five years old and entranced by the beauty of feathers. She whispers reverentially about softness and blueness and purpleness as she strokes the wing of a stuffed mallard duck. Her fingers circle the iridescent wing-flash patch of color that she just learned is called the speculum.
“Now you’re the teacher,’’ Anne says. “The next time you go to the park pond and see a mallard duck, you can tell your parents that patch of color on the wing is called the speculum.”
Josephine beams at Anne. She is at once confident in her knowledge of the world, and tolerant of her delusional science teacher: “Oh, Ms. Brataas, my parents would never look at a duck’s wing!” she laughs. “Even if I told them this is a speculum, they’d call it a spot!”
Unfortunately, Josephine’s experience is not unusual. Many parents fail in keeping girls interested in science. In addition, some studies suggest that the gender gap in science education—women still make up less than 25% of U.S. scientists—is shaped in part by differing parental attitudes toward boys’ and girls’ abilities to “do science.”
Harvard University developmental psychologist Harriet Tenenbaum observed such disparities by scrutinizing videotapes of parents and young children at interactive science exhibits. She discovered that boys were three times more likely than girls to hear explanations from their parents about the causal connections within the exhibit. While parents were equally likely to give directions to both boys and girls—such as “turn the crank”—they were more likely to discuss the underlying causes and use correct terms with boys.
What can a parent do to nurture scientific interest and competency in girls? Ruth and Ted Johnson—a chemist and biomedical engineer, respectively—of St. Paul, Minnesota, started the process early with their eight children. Their four sons and four daughters have racked up top honors in state and regional science competitions. Ruth gives this advice: “Let kids follow their interests. Talk about what you observe on nature walks at a very young age. Collect things. Provide field guides and reference materials—and do their projects and experiments with them. Learn with them.”
If the grownup Johnsons didn’t know the answer to a kid’s query, they issued the same response. “All our kids heard, ‘Look it up!’ from a very young age—and still do,” says Ted. “We’ve never had differing expectations or practices with the girls or the boys.”
Their daughter Betsy is now a biochemistry major in college. From a 6th-grade prize-winning project on crystals, Betsy moved onto “tribolumninescence”—in other words, what makes wintergreen Lifesavers ™ spark when chomped on. Betsy discovered a property not previously known: that aspirin crystals are triboluminescent. “My interest in science was absolutely nurtured by my parents,” says Betsy, and even “helped me gain more respect from my peers.”
Other steps parents can take to support science learning:
- Recognize the potential for bias. Make a conscious effort to introduce cause-and-effect statements when discussing scientific observations with daughters. Use challenging language and scientific vocabulary in your explanations. Don’t assume that your daughter won’t be interested or capable of understanding.
- Be a role model. Show your daughter your own interest in scientific questions and how they apply to daily life.
- Make science fun. Visit interactive exhibits at children’s science museums. Play educational computer games together. Enter a project in the school science fair.
- Ask and encourage scientific questions. “What do you think makes the bread dough rise when we add yeast to it?” Answer your daughter’s scientific questions to the best of your knowledge. Don’t be afraid to say, “That’s a great question, but I don’t know the answer. Let’s look it up.”
And remember: Josephine’s right. That spot of wing color is the speculum. Let’s call it that.
Anne Brataas, M.S., is an award-winning science writer, author, curriculum writer, and K-4 science teacher.
Laura Cassiday, Ph.D., is a biochemist and science writer who studies RNA molecules at the University of California, San Francisco.