The XX Factor

Making Science Just Girly Enough

I hate to admit it, but my daughter would absolutely be more interested in “learning why nail polish hardens and dries” than in something called “chemistry” or even “why neon lights work.” Although I think if you framed it as “why rocket fuel ignites,” you would still grab her 7-year-old attention. Gauging that attention is exactly what the University of Luxembourg’s Sylvie Kerger was trying to do when she presented kids with real-world examples of various sciences in order to measure their interest in learning. Typical science examples, Kerger writes in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, are “embedded in masculine contexts.” She thought putting a female-friendly spin around male-dominated scientific fields might increase the initial interest shown by girls in studying those subjects.

Wince-worthy as some of Kerger’s examples were (isn’t there something in the information technology area that girls are more interested in than “how to order clothes over the Internet?”), increasing the girl-friendly content did increase girls’ interest, and interest matters. As Kathy Seal writes in Miller-McCune, “studies have shown that interest counts more than ability toward choosing a major or a career,” which means that those initial curiosity-sparking questions might be more important than you’d think, leading a girl to take an elective or just bring the right attitude into a classroom experience.  But that girly presentation dampened the boys’ interest—they’d rather learn “how the inside of the computer is structured.” (Personally, so would I, but that may only be because I’m already quite well-versed in the “ordering clothes” component.) 

Kerger and her colleagues suggest that teachers offer choices between several “modules dealing with the same scientific concepts wrapped around various male- and female-friendly topics” without, ideally, expecting the classroom to split completely on gender lines. Once the interest is sparked, the researchers hope girls (maybe inspired by the Google Science Fair winners, all of whose projects had an arguably “girly” spin) will find their own ways to keep the  connection sustained.