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Maker movement: Bridging the gap between girls and STEM

By Lisa Abel-Palmieri
March 22, 2014
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Girls want to change the world.

Eighty-eight percent say they want to make a difference with their lives, and 90 percent express a desire to help people, according to the Girl Scouts' "Generation STEM" research. Girls have traditionally achieved this goal through people-oriented careers rather than through applying technology and scientific expertise to change the way things are done.

However, if more girls learn that STEM careers open up new avenues to help and serve, more girls will choose STEM.

Maker education allows girls to experience in a fun, tangible way how they can apply STEM skills to solve real problems — all while developing dexterity, learning about ideation and practicing teamwork. By giving girls the opportunity to make and tinker, we also help them develop their creative confidence so they persevere in pursuing STEM majors and careers. The "Generation STEM" report found that 92 percent of girls who engage with STEM subjects believe that they are smart enough to pursue a career in STEM — versus 68 percent of girls who don't display an interest in science, technology, engineering or math.

To nudge girls toward making and tinkering, "include things that are attractive to girls. Robots are great, but think about other things — or let your robot be a helper bot," says Laura Blankenship, co-founder of the #MakerEd chat on Twitter.

Andrew Carle, another founder of #MakerEd chat, advises educators to "start early, when a child's enthusiasm and aptitude can still drown out engrained gender expectations."

Through using design thinking and maker education, girls at The Ellis School are empowered to identify for themselves what problems and challenges in their community and life they want to address, rather than having these challenges defined for them. Maker education at Ellis enriches the curricular program in a really hands-on way that builds critical thinking skills and fosters creativity.

Here are a few examples of how The Ellis School integrates maker education throughout all grade levels:

Innovation Stations

More than two years ago we launched Innovation Stations, located in all classrooms in the lower school and in common areas in the middle and upper schools, with the goal of providing girls a place to explore and tinker in a nonthreatening way. From building wind turbines to using Makey Makey to write music and program Hummingbird robots, Ellis girls have fun while making.

Right now our middle school Innovation Station features an activity in which the girls build an origami character that has LEDs and motors (using the Invent-abling kit). They then write a short creative piece about the character, take a picture and post it to an origami gallery. This activity incorporates literature, arts and STEM.

Tinkering is a powerful form of "learning by doing," an ethos shared by the rapidly expanding maker movement community as well as many educators. Real science and engineering are done through tinkering.

Artificial limb lab

In our upper school engineering design class, the girls recently worked on an artificial limb lab. Ellis faculty who co-teach the class mentored small teams of three to four students as they identified problems people with disabilities face, developed empathy for people facing these disabilities through personal stories and research and designed multiple iterations of their solutions with Autodesk Inventor. They used the MakerBot Replicator 3D printer, along with manual tools, to make prototypes. The teams then printed final parts on the 3D printer and presented them to the class and an internal panel at Ellis.

Projects included the "RecFin," an assistive swimming device for people with a limb loss below the knee; the "Triple Threat," an assistive hair-tying device; the "BAZAD," a button and zipping assistive device; and the "Hold Tight," a device to help grip small objects.

Metropolitan Community Project

Our second grade students created a model of a metropolitan community. Serving as city planners, they made decisions about the placement of services, taking into consideration issues such as aesthetics, usage, space restraints, noise and pollution. The girls also gave special attention to green building and planning.

They worked in cooperative learning groups to design and construct streets, bridges, tram, tunnel, incline, parking facilities, signage, parks and recreational spaces. As neighborhoods and services sprang up, the girls positioned single-family homes as well as town houses, apartment houses and duplexes they made with a partner.

CoLaboratory and Active Classroom for Girls

Students helped us design and launch an Active Classroom for Girls and a CoLaboratory this school year. The project combines innovative teaching methods — such as the flipped classroom, design thinking and maker education — with physics and engineering courses.

We have created a new curriculum in which the lectures are predominately online and students spend class time collaborating in groups to define and solve problems through hands-on experiments and making. We intentionally build in time for our girls to develop empathy for each other as well as others in our community and across the globe, all while applying risk taking and perseverance to solve challenges.

Maker education strengthens girls' capacity for problem solving, collaboration and creative confidence. Making puts girls in charge of their learning — and in many cases this requires a cultural shift around how schools approach learning.

Want to learn more ways to incorporate STEM skills into your lessons? Check out ISTE's STEM webinars.

Lisa Abel-Palmieri, Ph.D., is the director of technology and innovation and head of computer science at The Ellis School. Connect with her on Twitter via @Learn21Tech.