Gas station without pumps

2013 May 16

Storytelling to close the gender gap?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:19
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In Closing the Gender Gap in STEM Fields With Stories, Bethany Johnsen wrote an

Making science classes more “like that” is also the suggestion of a recent Scientific American blog post, To Attract More Girls to STEM, Bring More Storytelling to Science. Its authors, teachers at a STEM-focused high school, argue that the reason for the gender gap in the STEM fields is not a shortage of girls with ability, but the failure of our science curriculum to engage their interest and kindle their passion. The remedy they propose—telling the stories of science—could lend the STEM fields some of the allure traditionally left to the humanities.

While I agree that the shortage of women in STEM fields is not due to a shortage of girls with ability (the dominance of girls at middle school and high school science fairs is clear), I’m not convinced that a story-based approach is going to work. History of science is not science, and stories about scientists are not science. Replacing science instruction in middle and high school with stories and history would leave students less prepared to study and do real science, and more likely to choose a humanities field in college.

Note that there isn’t a gender gap in biology (at least not through grad school—there is still some gender gap in paid jobs), so the problem isn’t with “STEM” as a whole, but more specifically with the math and computation-based STEM fields.  Even among those fields, there are wide disparities, with math itself coming much closer to parity than physics or computer science.  Why?  Is it something about the field, about the way the field is taught, about the culture of the practitioners, or about the culture of the students currently majoring in those fields?

Making the science instruction more interesting is a good goal, but the suggestion of the SciAm blog post “How many engineering teachers include a fiction book like Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano in their syllabi?” seems to me to miss the point.  Replacing science and engineering with fiction reading will not result in more students studying engineering and science—it will result in students studying literature and thinking that they are studying science.

The basic idea—to use a more story-telling approach to teaching STEM—is a good one, but I think that the stories have to be intrinsic to the science and math, like Dan Meyer’s The Three Acts Of A Mathematical Story, not stories about science, which seems to be what both blogs are advocating.

I don’t know how successful approaches like “Storytelling Alice” have been—it is no longer available though the web page claims it was successful:

A study comparing middle school girls’ experiences with learning to program in Storytelling Alice and in a version of Alice without storytelling features (Generic Alice) showed that:

  • Users of Storytelling Alice spent 42% more time programming than users of Generic Alice.
  • Users of Storytelling Alice were more than three times as likely to sneak extra time to work on their programs as users of Generic Alice (51% of Storytelling Alice users vs. 16% of Generic Alice users snuck extra time to program).
  • Despite the focus on making programming more fun, users of Storytelling Alice were just as successful at learning basic programming concepts as users of Generic Alice.

Of course, Alice is not the most fun programming environment for middle schoolers (I think that Scratch beats it hands down), so the storytelling component may just have made it a bit better.  Has anyone ever attempted a Storytelling Scratch class? (I wasn’t able to find any equivalent to Storytelling Alice using Scratch in a very brief web search.)

The newest version of Scratch (2.0) runs as a Flash program in the browser, and has some new media-related features (like being able to interact with the video from the computer’s camera).  My son has played with it a bit, but I’ve not had time to explore the new features.  The Flash-based Scratch means that no installation is necessary to run programs, but that Scratch will not run on iOS devices (like iPads), which could be a limitation at many schools.  I understand that an iPAD app or HTML5 implementation of Scratch is planned, now that Scratch 2.0 has been released.

A better approach than stories about science may be to have more hands-on science and engineering, where students learn the science and engineering in order to accomplish something, not just to pass a course and get into college.  So far, most attempts along those lines have favored stereotypically “boy” goals (robot sports, for example, and video games), and so have not served to shrink the gender gap.


  1. I’m at an all-girls’ school teaching computer science. My students create stories and art using scratch. I also do an art project with Python. My students also like to create games. My girls play a lot of video games online. My main focus has been on letting the girls follow their interests. My assignments are generally open-ended, which leaves a lot of room for creativity. I’ve been following some conversations on various e-mail lists about attracting girls to CS. Mostly, a lot of people just don’t think about whether their assignments turn people off or not. I think a lot about how to structure assignments and I get feedback from my students so I can make adjustments.

    So generally what I see is that girls do like to tell stories. They like graphics. The love to be able to “decorate” stuff. They like games (or stories) that involve books and movies and celebraties they’re interested in. They like music. I do have a few girls interested in building robots, but I’m teaching a course next year using Arduino, including the LilyPad arduino (for using in fabric projects). I have 9 students so far–more than I’ve ever had for any class.

    Comment by geekymom — 2013 May 16 @ 11:57 | Reply

    • I noticed when I was running an afterschool tech club for (mainly) 5th graders that the girls were more likely to play with the costumes in Scratch and more likely to do scripted story-telling animations than the boys, who were more likely to do video games or reactive animations. My sample was very small, though, so I don’t want to generalize from these particular individuals to kids in general.

      I don’t know whether any of the kids (other than my son) have gone on to do substantial programming in the intervening 6 years.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 May 16 @ 13:52 | Reply

  2. I’ve probably said this before, but I think it would help to have more reading instruction include science AND history of science material. Seems to me a lot of kids grow up without enough general information to be able to get into science classes very easily, and practicing the skills you need for nonfiction reading is really important (I was shocked a few years ago when one of my kids literally didn’t know how to skim through a chapter for a figure or fact she needed).

    Comment by Irene — 2013 May 16 @ 12:07 | Reply

    • More non-fiction reading instruction would be good, as would more non-literary-analysis, non-self-reflection writing. I think that reading and writing classes should not be confused with literature classes. Everyone needs to be able to read and write, but literary analysis is one of the social markers of the leisure class.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 May 16 @ 13:54 | Reply

  3. Hi,

    As someone who has done some exploratory research w/ middle schoolers using Scratch to tell digital stories , I have likewise found that girls gravitate more toward stories while boys (esp. those with some Scratch experience) really want video games.

    But as a starting point, stories are quite good–particularly because with middle schoolers, they allow kids to start with personal experience and then learn to translate these into external composition be it with pane-and-paer or Scratch bricks.

    But what stories don’t do well is teach kids some of the key elements of programming such as loops, recursion, & variables–the nature of straight narration just doesn’t allow for this.

    But it doesn’t have to be an either/ or proposition – I am working with students right now to generate interactive Choose-Your-Own Adventure stories which allow for multiple outcomes. We start with a 3-4 minute straight coded narration and then return to the storyline to find “pivot points” (places where the story could have gone different) and then branch out from there. This tends to make for a new step-by-step pedagogy too in terms of grasping the varying potentials of Scratch.

    Comment by Quinn Burke — 2013 May 21 @ 13:34 | Reply

  4. I’ve had this tab open since you wrote your post. I wanted to give you more detail in my reply than what I had on hand. I think you are making this too binary. Story-telling does not have to take away from the science itself. For young kids, here’s some research showing that using a story-telling perspective helps with ‘retention’. My own point of view is that this is a way to help people become engaged.

    I would really like to learn more of the history of the time when Newton and Leibniz were inventing calculus. I think understanding the problems they were trying to solve will help students intellectually connect with the ideas of calculus. It may help girls and women more, but I think it will also help boys and men. All students benefit from seeing things in connected ways.

    Comment by suevanhattum — 2013 June 3 @ 10:50 | Reply

    • I’m sure that story telling helps some students. I’m also sure that some teachers will tell stories instead of teaching the science, because that is easier and more natural for them. There are already math books that seem to spend more time on stories about mathematicians than on explaining the math (sorry, I don’t have specific examples handy, and my memory may be exaggerating a minor flaw).

      I think that narrative in science is important, following the development of ideas, but that is different from biography and stories about scientists. I really don’t care about the fights between Newton and Leibniz about who invented what in calculus, but I do care about the close ties between calculus and physics. Teaching derivatives without teaching velocity and acceleration seems rather pointless. The connection of calculus to Newton is an arbitrary historical fact, while the connection to physics is deep and fundamental.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 June 3 @ 11:49 | Reply

      • I agree. The physics questions that motivated Newton and Leibniz are what I’m interested in too, not their silly fights. I also agree that those bio boxes in math books do nothing (or almost nothing) for students. I’m interested in something more integrated.

        I was trained in pure mathematics and until recently had a weird resistance to using velocity as a centerpiece of my explanation of derivative. (Like it wasn’t really the math, but was applications – things the math could do.) This past year, it has finally sunk in how central velocity and acceleration are to these concepts.

        Comment by suevanhattum — 2013 June 3 @ 12:01 | Reply

        • I also trained in pure math and have only taken calculus-based physics in the past 2 years (41 years after taking calculus for the first time). I had some awareness of derivatives and integrals even when I did algebra-based physics, but teaching my son calculus-based physics at the same time that he was learning calculus was a much better approach than what I had.

          When I was 10 I wanted to become a mathematician, and I didn’t really change my mind (deciding to be a computer scientist instead) until my 2nd year of grad school in math, when I found out that all the math I loved best was being done in CS departments, not math departments. Since then I’ve become more and more applied, and see myself as primarily an engineering professor, not a scientist or mathematician.

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 June 3 @ 12:09 | Reply

          • And I have become a teacher. I decided my interest in logic didn’t go so far as I thought it might. Only recently have I begun to call myself a mathematician, because I’ve been playing with math, discovering things on my own (not new to other mathematicians, but new to me).

            In trying to understand calculus deeply enough to teach it well, I have become interested in knowing more about the original problems it was created to solve.

            Comment by suevanhattum — 2013 June 3 @ 12:14 | Reply

  5. Greetings, Wonderful post! I am in favor of more storytelling in engineering “with the science of engineering included.” Long ago they called these ‘Case Studies,’ but cases were a little dry. (The gas station can have pumps). I call them, “Engineering Stories, – Realistic Fiction in STEM.” They are not futuristic, unrealistic, science fiction; they are adventurous engaging stories that are realistic and include people, dialog, narration, academics, problems, failures, successes, and all else you would find in an engineering environment and culture.Try some samples at my blog, then buy the book, Kindle or paperback. Read it, recommend it, learn what it is like to be an engineer, then help others, including girls enjoy the “storytelling” of engineering.
    Best Regards,
    Kenneth Hardman

    Comment by Kenneth Richard Hardman — 2013 June 7 @ 16:35 | Reply

    • Kenneth, would you consider offering me (and GSWP, if he’s interested) a review copy of your book? GSWP would be more able to tell how useful it is, since I’m not in engineering. But I love the concept, and would enjoy looking it over. If I like it, I’d probably write a review on my blog. I don’t write reviews for the books I don’t like (it’s no fun).

      Comment by suevanhattum — 2013 June 8 @ 10:41 | Reply

      • Sue, it is a nice thought, but I’m not particularly interested in reviewing them. I looked over the sample first chapters that Kenneth Hardman provided on his website, and I doubt that I could read an entire “short story” in that style. They reminded me of some of the worst science fiction of the 50s and 60s, or of the overly earnest textbook attempts to “humanize” science, which result in neither good reading nor good science education.

        There may be a market for Hardman’s stories, but I don’t think that they address my concerns about trying to use storytelling to close the gender gap. Wrapping engineering design discussion in stilted dialog is not going to excite many students of either gender, nor is it going to help them learn to do engineering design.

        Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 June 8 @ 10:59 | Reply

        • I’m considering writing dialogues for calculus. If I do, I’ll be asking you what you think. I have a feeling I’ll appreciate your judgment, even if I disagree.

          Comment by suevanhattum — 2013 June 8 @ 14:05 | Reply

          • The closest I’ve seen to dialogs in calculus is the Manga Guide to Calculus, which we bought a copy of. My son did not find it very entertaining (he preferred a more direct treatment like the Art of Problem-Solving calculus text). But for those who like a storytelling approach, it is not badly done.

            I understand that the Life of Fred are a popular storytelling approach to math. You might want to look at their calculus book. I’ve never looked at the Life of Fred books, so can’t comment on how good they are (either as books to read or as math pedagogy).

            Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 June 8 @ 18:28 | Reply

            • Neither of those worked for me. Fred is good for kids, but not my cup of tea. The Manga Guide didn’t cut it for me. I loved Math Girls, but that’s not calculus. I’m thinking more like the dialogues of Plato and Galileo, where the speakers have some personality, but not much happens besides the math discussions.

              Comment by suevanhattum — 2013 June 8 @ 19:16 | Reply

      • suevanhattum, I would be happy to offer a review copy. If you would like a pdf file of the book, please give me an email address. If you would like a paperback copy, please provide a postal address. Also, please tell me more about yourself and the work you do.

        Comment by Kenneth Richard Hardman — 2013 June 8 @ 21:56 | Reply

  6. […] Storytelling to close the gender gap? […]

    Pingback by Blog year 2015 in review | Gas station without pumps — 2015 December 31 @ 17:07 | Reply

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