It is a well-known problem that in the STEM field (science, technology, engineering and math), less than a quarter of all scientists are women. In some fields, such as computer science, the numbers are even lower: as few as one in ten. One suggestion to bridge this gender gap is to expose students at a younger age to female scientists who can then serve as role models for the younger generation.
Hermantown Middle School has this idea covered. All five science teachers at the middle school (and almost half at Hermantown High School) are female, a fact that escaped their notice until recently. "We're focused on all our students, but it's great that they get to experience a team of female scientists," said Katie Conklin, a fifth-grade science teacher at HMS. "We want boys to see female science role models just as much as the girls."
There is research to suggest that as female scientists and science educators gain visibility, their female students gain confidence in their science and math abilities. Katie Brown-Mesedahl, a seventh-grade life science teacher, remembers an important role model in her life, a female engineer who loved flying airplanes. "Her influence seemed subtle while I was growing up," she said, "but now I recognize she unwittingly planted a seed in me. I had to identify my interests and develop confidence, but she demonstrated that people like me do science."
In "people like me," she meant girls. It often takes a female scientist simply participating in her field to convince young female students they are also capable of engaging in the scientific world. Other methods of engagement, such as the "Women of Science" poster hanging in Conklin's classroom, can feel like an honest effort but also feel off-track. A discussion amongst the five teachers ensues in which they unanimously agree that the poster should be free of gender, simply highlighting great scientists.
They admit that attracting females into the STEM fields in college is a challenge. But at the middle school level, the enthusiasm for science class remains strong. "I have a really strong group of girls this year who are very interested in debating the issues," said Madeleine Schmaltz, an eighth-grade earth science teacher. Statistics do say that girls lose interest in science and math by the time they reach high school, which carries over to the lack of female students graduating from college with STEM degrees. Schmaltz and the other middle school teachers hope that in helping all their students equally, the girls as well as the boys will grow up to understand and appreciate the scientific process.
It's not just science and math classes, according to these teachers. Students of both genders become a little more subdued in high school. "That's why it's important for us to reach them in elementary and middle school," said Jillian Godfrey, who teaches physical science, earth science and biology in both the middle school and high school.
Most teachers would probably agree that the best way to engage students is by creating a learning environment with as many hands on and relevant activities as possible. A passion for their subject can go a long way as well. "I've been told I'm enthusiastic about my subject," said Jill Hansen, a physical and life science teacher, and one of ten finalists for the Minnesota Teacher of the Year award in 2016. "When students see and experience an animated and passionate educator, they can't help but be drawn to the topic being taught."
To that end, all five of these teachers spend much of their teaching energy showing students how scientific concepts apply to their everyday lives, getting them out of their desks to participate in hands-on activities, and encouraging lively classroom discussion.
It's all about channeling the enthusiasm, these teachers say. Talking with them, it is obvious the five of them have a strong sense of collaboration. They talk about joint projects their classrooms engage in, discuss how different topics are carried over and emphasized year after year, and laugh about how they all tend to walk by each others' classrooms and stop to watch what the others are doing in order to gain ideas for their own classroom.
The colleges might be struggling to encourage women into STEM degrees, but if these teachers at Hermantown middle school are any indication, that will change in the future. They teach to all their students, not just focusing on the girls, but nevertheless, the consistent presence of a team of all-female scientists educating them could very well have an impact on how the middle school girls perceive science as they grow older.
They are already seeing progress. As a beginning-of-the-year activity in both Godfrey's and Hansen's sixth-grade science classes, they ask their students to draw a picture of what they think a scientist looks like. In the past, most students typically drew a man in a white lab coat, more often than not with Einstein-crazy hair and a beaker or a test tube in his hand, smoke drifting out of the top. Few students ever drew a woman.
This year, half of their students drew female scientists. Though that in itself was enough reason to celebrate, they were quick to point out that some of the female scientists were drawn by their male students. "It's important that the gender gap is recognized by everyone," Hansen said. "This is where the change happens."
Kathleen Murphy is a freelance journalist who lives in Duluth. This story originally appeared in The Woman Today magazine.