Being a Woman in STEM

Today is one of my favorite days of the year: International Women’s Day. I love celebrating my womanhood and speaking out to advocate for my rights as a woman. It’s a great feeling to be surrounded by incredible women regularly, and it’s even better lifting up a collective voice that screams “girl power” with every breath.

On this day in particular, I think about what it means to be a woman in STEM.

No, I’m not an engineer or an astrophysicist or a marine biologist (to my fourth grade self’s dismay I’m sure), but what I am is a science teacher to middle schoolers in the greater Raleigh area.

Wake County Public Schools is the 14th largest school district in the country, serving nearly 160,000 students. 76,862 of those students are female and I get the chance to work with a portion of those students daily.

I revel in the fact that I get the opportunity every day to make magical moments of science happen for students, especially female students, every day. These moments can be as simple as looking under microscopes are stomata to as complex as using a CAD system to design a spacecraft to colonize a planet.

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Giving young girls the chance to see themselves in a STEM-filled future is such an amazing gift. I love teaching about women who have influenced the scientific community and giving girls hands-on experiences to engage in science content (also, #girlsdoingscience is only my favorite hashtag of all time — just check my lab Instagram account). I get so excited watching these students grow into confident, strong young ladies who are willing to get up and independently lead a class science review and completely OWN it.

I have girls who want to be everything from astronauts to cosmetologists to veterinarians and beyond, who never fully realized they could achieve those dreams until hitting a sixth grade science lab.

When I taught elementary school, it was maybe even more imperative that I displayed what a woman in STEM looked like.

IMG_1097IMG_1224In third grade, I had students performing soil tests on our school grounds’ soil to figure out where the best place for a school garden would be (then they presented websites they made to a panel of PTA, Garden Club, and administrative representatives to state their cause – they even stayed within a budget!). These students also designed spacecraft by taking measurements in their notebooks and noting what elements of flight were present in their craft. We analyzed weather patterns and matched those to potential rocket launch dates. We read books and articles and wrote essays about science topics, growing content vocabulary daily.

Sparking a love for STEM starts in elementary school, but ultimately this isn’t just about the beginning; rather, it’s about the sustainability.

According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, women make up less than 30% of the science and engineering workforce (and women make up a total of half of the college educated workforce in the country!). Sure, girls might “outperform boys” on standardized math and science assessments, but this isn’t about a test score.

This is about a radical shift in highlighting the natural talents of women and honoring their words and ideas. A shift in treating women like equals and paying them as such. A shift in making STEM interests more accessible to girls of all ages and races and socioeconomic statuses.

We must be a proud community of women in STEM. We must show our girls that it’s okay to be a boss because that doesn’t make us bossy. We must demonstrate leadership, compassion, and grace in all aspects of our lives. We must continue to thirst for knowledge and be models of impassioned learning.

If not us, then who? Who will teach our girls that it’s okay to ask questions and challenge the notions of boys in class? Who will empower our girls to speak up and advocate for themselves and others? Who will ensure that women will end up making more than 30% of our science and engineering workforce?

I love being a science teacher as it is a total joy for me getting girls excited about STEM. The only thing better than teaching girls to embrace science is the waiting to see what they’ll do with their excitement, for their future is limitless.

Long Division.

When I was in elementary school, I hated math.

The bane of my existence was long division. I hated long division, I didn’t understand it, and I felt like I would never get it.

Ironically, last year when I was student teaching, long division was one of my favorite things to teach. It was great relating to students and letting them know that long division was hard for me, too.

I think about my time teaching long division last year and how much I didn’t like math when I was in elementary school. It wasn’t until I took algebra when I decided that math wasn’t exactly the spawn of Satan and it was actually kind of nice to do something methodical with a clear-cut right answer.

As a first-year-teacher, I’ve really enjoyed teaching math. I think I’ve enjoyed it so much because it’s so different than it was when I was in elementary school.

In 1998 when I was in third grade, I remember things being very different. I remember a lot of math books and workbooks and solving the problems on paper. That’s about it.

Flash-forward 15 years and here I sit cutting squares for a hands-on math activity I’ll do with my students tomorrow when we do a lesson on geometry. I don’t remember a lot of hands-on activities when I was younger, but I feel like that’s such a big part of what I incorporate into my lessons now.

Why wasn’t that something I remember from my elementary school years?

Why wouldn’t you do hands-on activities to make math relevant to your students? Why wouldn’t you tap into the knowledge pool of your students so they can make connections to make math real to them? For me, it’s been incredible watching my third graders really apply the math that they’ve learned this year. It’s so rewarding hearing them compare fractions at lunch — “No, I have HALF of my pizza left — you ate 3/4, so now you only have 1/4 left, and I have more than you do!”

Seriously, this magic happens all on its own.

When we get on our class Twitter to tweet about our day (@ballininB10), it’s heartwarming to see the kids using their math vocabulary. Hearing words like “sides” and “vertices” come out of the mouth of a nine-year-old is something that is just really cool to me.

I willingly admit that I never really thought of how much math there was in every day life. My dad was always (and still is) really good at applying mathematical knowledge to every day activities. Whenever I go to the store with him, he asks me how much per pound the sugar is, or he’ll ask the amount we’ll save with a certain discount.

I also willingly admit that I’m bad at this kind of math, but I’m making strides to improve.

The thing that really strikes me is how important problem-solving is when it comes to math. Problem-solving, logic, and manipulating figures is such a huge part of math that doesn’t even always require numbers! Abstract concepts like spatial reasoning are something I feel like aren’t always taught to their potential.

Another reason why I think I like teaching math so much? It’s something I know I can get through with my newcomer ELLs. I have a student who is new from Mexico this year, and math has been such a great doorway for her to find her footing with sharing out with others in class. Numbers are this universal language that anyone from any language background can work with, which is such a beautiful thing! I’ve actually found that a lot of my ELLs are really strong with patterns, spatial reasoning, and algebra. I guess their minds just work a little differently when they’re trying to learn more than one language!

An excellent New Teacher Chat inspired me to write this — it just really got me thinking about how fun and relevant math really is. So many things that I do every day revolve around math, whether I think about it or not — playing guitar, balancing my checkbook, driving my car, filling out my March Madness bracket.

To my fellow math-wasn’t-really-my-thing-when-I-was-younger friends everywhere: forget what you thought you knew about math, because the ways we teach it now are so much better than they were before.