Thus Spake Zuska

Resources for Parents – 1

Jeff Knapp asked what kind of advice would I give to a 14-year-old girl who is showing an interest in neuroscience, taking AP classes, and has articulated an interest in science. As the “1” in the title indicates, I’ll be posting again on this topic. I’m going to preface my remarks by saying that I don’t have the last word on this topic, and I’m going to invite all my colleagues in WEPAN to weigh in on this if they want to. WEPAN is the Women in Engineering Programs and Advocates Network; it’s a national organization whose mission is “to be a catalyst, advocate, and leading resource for institutional and national change that will result in the full participation of women in engineering”.

When I was at Kansas State University, I had the good fortune to work with some very wonderful people in establishing the GROW Project for middle school girls. On the GROW (Girls Researching Our World) webpage, there is a link for parents. Under the Publications link, there is also a downloadable pdf pamphlet with tips and lists of websites; you can print this out and share it with other parents. There are many other links to sites that provide resources and information for parents who wish to encourage young girls in STEM careers. One that may be of particular interest is Dads & Daughters.

The Engineer’s Week “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” site may have some useful information. I like the link for The Creative Engineer. Case studies are presented that

are organized around eight themes that suggest some of the elements of creativity — by no means the only ones — in engineering and in other areas of life. These themes are: challenging, connecting, visualizing, collaborating, harmonizing, improvising, reorienting, and synthesizing.

(The “connecting” case study deals with tissue engineering and may interest your daughter, Jeff.)

Beyond these web resources, here are a few off the cuff tips:

  1. Hands-on Skills
    • Teach her to use simple hand tools.
    • Encourage her to take things apart and put them back together. Buy some small appliances at a second-hand shop (blow-dyers, toasters, what-have-you) if neither you nor your daughter want to sacrifice the household stuff on the first try.
    • Find out if she can job-shadow someone for a day at a computer-repair shop. You’ll want to make sure they are welcoming to young women and make sure they understand that this is supposed to be positive learning experience, but if they are willing to let her job shadow, hopefully they’ll get those points.

    I make these points because one thing that young women usually lack at the college level is experience in hands-on work. Boys are more likely to have spent time working with tools, tinkering around with things, taking something apart for the heck of it. Even if these skills end up being completely unimportant in a given career, possession of them – or not – is often used as one marker that separates the men from the boys. And women already aren’t boys, so they need all the skills they can get to keep up with the silly bragging rights games that boys will play.

  2. Working With Guidance Counselors and Teachers
    • Make sure your daughter does not get shepherded into easier science classes and away from advanced math classes as she enters junior and senior year of high school.
    • Keep in mind that some guidance counselors are not themselves aware of the college requirements for many STEM careers.
    • Be an involved parent at your daughter’s school; know how your daughter’s teachers teach.
    • If you daughter is being made to feel unwelcome or is not being given attention in a math or science class, make a complaint to the school. If possible, switch her to a different class. If not, and if you can afford it, get a tutor.
    • If your daughter has gotten a lousy deal in high school and is ill-prepared for math and science at the college level, consider having her take a few courses at a local community college. There are often really wonderful teachers at CC’s. Gaining a surer foothold and taking a little longer is much preferable to jumping right into the university pool and sinking.


  1. #1 Natasa
    September 18, 2006

    My father discouraged me from doing any hands-on stuff when I was a child. He would always tell me to stay away and that I would break things. He would not let me near anything electronic. This seriously hurt me as a software engineer. On the job when I was starting out and even now, I was afraid to tinker with things and had a great fear to overcome. Of course as a software engineer you have to continuously tinker with things and fix them because this is the nature of the job.

  2. #2 Amanda
    September 18, 2006

    Check out Capsela. I had a couple of general sets that I played with constantly.

  3. #3 Kristin
    September 18, 2006

    I totally agree with the taking things apart advice. I wish I’d done more of that, but my brothers weren’t doing any tinkering either. At least I did play Legos with them when we all were younger, so my spatial skills were decent. And I was drawing all the time.

    And I think that part of the reason why my brothers didn’t take things apart is that our mother was pretty strict about keeping the house clean. She wouldn’t have had much patience for a disembowelled toaster, not to mention that back then my family wouldn’t have thrown around money at things we didn’t need.

    What’s cool now is that tinkering is hip! Get your daughter subscriptions to Makemagazine and its new spinoff, Craft to learn all of the wild things you can do yourself. And these periodicals look cool too, with stylish, clear design.

  4. #4 Penny
    September 18, 2006

    I agree with the recommendation to buy such a girl a subscription or two–to science magazines, or anything that involves making things, step-by-step instructions, experimenting with variations, reading charts, taking measurements, etc. I loved getting science magazines as a kid–even if the science was sometimes over my head, at least I could try to understand, and if my folks read the same articles, we could talk about the contents, and the implications. Even with all the stuff online now, it’s still cool to get a magazine in the mailbox, something you can stuff in your bag and read on the schoolbus.

    And hikes, nature walks, rock climbs, anything to get out there and see nature in real life; going along on my grandmother’s birdwatching trips seemed kinda geeky at the time, but I learned a lot playing with the rocks and plants and bugs, and watching how the hawks rode thermals….

  5. #5 Janne
    September 18, 2006

    Real tinkering – not Legos or Capula; not anything _designed_ to be used that way – taking something apart that was not meant to, repurposing stuff for new uses, building stuff (whatever doesn’t really matter) from scratch, from improvised materials and means, is hugely important I think, and not because of anything you specifically learn from the tinkering itself.

    What it does that is so important is that it makes you realize the world, and everything in it, is amenable to tinkering. It’s not a black box you’re supposed to stay out of – or if you are, you can ignore that and pry it open anyway. With the right kind of leverage there is nothing you can’t disassemble, examine, prod and probe and try to understand. And if you think you really understand it, you can try to put it back together again to see if you were right (and inevitably idly wonder where those extra screws came from).

    That is the basic lesson of tinkering; unfortunately too few children today – male or female – really ever get the opportunity to do it today.

  6. #6 Bill Hooker
    September 19, 2006

    I think Janne’s insight is critical. Tinkering teaches a way of looking at the world that is vital to research of all kinds — and to much more than research. One of the fundamental handicaps for girls today is that they are not encouraged to hack their environment (whereas boys are, if they show any interest at all).

    This means that girls don’t learn so early or so easily to see the world as something that they can reconfigure — that they can master and control.

    I suspect that at least some of the difference between men’s and women’s views of power stem from this early disparity. I wouldn’t want women to adopt a male attitude to power, but I don’t think that is what would happen if girls were encouraged to tinker. What I think would happen is that they would grow up seeing everything, including sexist obstacles, as things they could hack their way around. With a little luck, the Testosterone Standard for masculinity/leadership would be obsolete in a few generations!

  7. #7 Veronica Arreola
    September 19, 2006

    First, thanks to this dad for looking for resources! Second, may I also suggest our e-mentoring program, GEM-SET, for a young woman in high school?

    GEM-SET stands for the Girls’ Electronic Mentoring in Science, Engineering and Technology. This is a program designed to connect young girls in middle school and high school with professional women in the SET fields.

    Much of the mentoring is done via an electronic list called GEM-SET Daily Digest that is mailed to all participants’ e-mail address. The students and mentors exchange ideas about many topics. Most discussions focus on:

    * SET classes, classroom problems, classroom successes
    * SET education and career decisions
    * Peer pressure and concerns about SET
    * SET challenges faced by girls and women
    * SET future opportunities such as scholarships and internships

    Mentors and student members are also invited to optional field trips and special events held in Chicago co-sponsored by GEM-SET throughout the school year.

    Good luck!

  8. #8 Jeff Knapp
    September 19, 2006

    Very cool stuff. I had no idea about any of these resources. Thank you all for the info.

    I agree, encouraging kids to tinker, fiddle, explore, and puzzle things out is critical for so many areas of intellectual growth. I have to admit, I have been as guilty as anybody of keeping my kids away from things for fear of them breaking them. That has been especially true of my two step daughters who tend to be rough on things (destructo children). Now, I have both of them actively creating and doing things on the computer. The two older girls are doing photography and video using the computers to edit and manipulate their videos and photos for example. All three of them are, of course, very active on MySpace posting videos, photos and what not. My focus on this has been to get them comfortable using technology for creative and productive endeavors. It is my belief that being comfortable with and being able to be creative using technology will be invaluable to them when it comes to competing in the marketplace no matter what they wind up doing.

    Thanks Zuska for the resource links. I was kind of blind about such resources. It gives me a good starting point.

  9. #9 SuzyQueue
    September 19, 2006

    Fiddling with things is very important. Model building in general is a good skill. The models can be store bought or home made. Materials can be recycled or new craft materials. One important resource I found useful is ‘a room of one’s own’ in which to work on things. This is different from a bedroom or shared space. Give your daughter her own library space, work shop space, and/or craft/hobby space. She would be responsible for the space and would have somewhere to work on projects without them being disturbed by others, especially other siblings.

    While reading this post and the comments, I was interrupted by my 4-year old daughter gleefully laughing about ‘poor hunter man,’ a hunting action figure. She figured out how to pull his head off and put it on her ‘fashion’ doll/action figure. She is having loads of fun so far taking things apart and putting them together in different ways. Fashion doll actually likes to go flying. She has a harness to attach her to a kite – not my idea but sounded fun. Now we need a decent parachute for those occasional times that she falls out of the kite. Oh yeah, hunter man is afraid of heights so he can’t go flying.

    Most of all, be supportive. Even if it sounds crazy, I usually go along with the latest idea as long as it isn’t inherently dangerous. Adult supervision and support is great and I get to have some fun also.

  10. #10 E
    September 19, 2006

    There is also the very important “Dare to be Different” training. Peer pressure could be herding her away from excelling in Math and Science. Sadly, even at university she may meet people who have a strong view that women should not be doing neuroscience. (Yes, OK, bringing up kids with the strength to go against the herd is important in other ways beyond science careers!)

  11. #11 Holly
    September 21, 2006

    I fully support the idea of getting her a couple of subscriptions to science magazines – especially those that might feature neuroscience. I think Scientific American’s Mind publication would be a good choice. Tinkering with things is good practice for using the scientific method. And, encouraging a love for math is imperative! I got all of that growing up and became a psychologist. She might like to read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by neurologist Oliver Sacks:

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