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.