Growing the Gap

There’s plenty of evidence that k-5 children (boys and girls, white and minority) have a pretty strong interest in science and are confident in their science abilities. We also know that STEM careers tend to be dominated by white men. So what is happening in the tween to adult years that results in the gender STEM gap? Well, a lot. 

Ignoring the simplistic, and thoroughly debunked answer that girls just don’t like science, there isn’t just one answer to this question. There are many answers that when stacked together paint a rich portrait. While not all explanations apply to all girls, the layers and layers of small barriers and messages form what J Clark Blickenstaff calls the gender filter

There are so many layers to this filter that I cannot possibly cover them in one blog post (or many, many blog posts). I’m an identity researcher, so I’m going to focus on explanations around identity. Also, because I think that understanding these elements is the key to correcting the gender gap in STEM.

Even though young children express enthusiasm for science and confidence in their science abilities, gendered inculturation into science and math is already at play as early as second grade in the form of implicit bias and gendered associations [1]. Very young children have already absorbed stereotypes about who is more suited to careers in math (and science) and who is “better” at math and science. These early perceptions of suitability play a pivotal role in later decisions.

As I’ve mentioned before, middle school is a very important time for identity development. Kids begin trying out different identities, processing feedback about their identity performances, and making important choices about who they are, and perhaps more importantly, who they are not or cannot be. This is also a crucial time for establishing gender identity, testing out sexuality, and finding social niches. I think most people who’ve been through middle school can remember this time pretty vividly. The pressure to find a place of belonging and avoid social shaming is powerful. When you add to the mix gendered notions of science as being the native realm of (white, cis, hetero, upper middle class) boys - and unflattering stereotypes of scientists as asocial, obsessive, geniuses - a female science identity becomes quite fraught. For most girls, trying on a science identity is a risky proposition that could undermine a more socially desirable identity as feminine and sociable. 

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In their hugely influential studies of tween and teen youth, science identity ninjas Archer and Dewitt [2] have described the very circumscribed path toward a female science identity. Basically, girls have two choices in successfully integrating a science identity, neither of which is reasonably attainable by most girls. The first example is the well-rounded, socially adept girl. This is the girl who can do it all, sports, academics, social-status. You know this girl. She’s the one you desperately wanted to hate in high school, but you couldn’t, because she was just so nice and awesome, and her hair was super shiny and always looked great - but like she didn’t even try, she just rolled out of bed fabulous without any makeup and could spike a volley ball like some sort of Grecian goddess. She could be a cheerleader and captain of the brain bowl team. She built houses for poor people in Honduras, where she spoke flawless Spanish. Dammit Alicia O’Brien [3], you haunt me.

So yeah, that’s not an option for any but the .01% of Alicia O’Briens in the world. The other option Archer and Dewitt observed where what is known in the UK as “blue-stocking” scientists. These are girls who strongly identify with academic pursuits and have largely desexualized themselves. They typically have parents who take a strong hand in the daughters education and discourage the normal socializing and gender goofing off of early adolescence. You know this girl to, she’s serious, hard-working,  intellectually intimidating, but not socially threatening. She’s above the game. This identity is also not terribly accessible (or desirable) for many girls. 

Imagine, you are a middle school aged girl. You’ve already absorbed the implicit bias that science and math are the natural realm of boys. You probably think (though you may not admit it) that being good at math and science requires an innate talent (see fixed mindsets). Even if you are pretty good at math and science your performance in those areas doesn’t impact your interest in them as much as it would for boys, because most careers in math and science are not really “thinkable” for a girl. So, when you’re choosing extracurricular activities, you’re less likely to choose math and science options that conflict with your feminine (or non-binary) gender identity. Even if you’re an academically high performing student, you view math and science instrumentally, as hurdles to climb to get where you want, rather than interesting journeys to take just for the wonder. Over time these small biases and little choices feed into growing identity gaps and a future in science seems less and less like “you” as other things (art, sports, social ties) become more integrated into your sense of self.

In this way, the narrative around choices about science and identity get muddled and feel less like a narrative of oppression and exclusion and more like a natural arc. These choices away from science and toward something else were simply the journey to being who you always were. Sure, you liked science as a kid and you enjoy a good podcast about developing a missions to Mars, but science is not a part of who you are

I like to tell a story about when my son was very little. Between the ages of 2-4 my son had a plan, and it was the best plan ever. When he grew up he would spend his days as a construction worker using massive equipment to tear down roads and buildings and then build other roads and buildings. By night he would be a janitor, cleaning up all the grossest messes of the world and vacuuming up all the spiders. In between he would sneak in princess time, art, and legos. He had all the accoutrement for these vocations. Big dump truck and excavator with real moving arms. Check. Janitor cart with feather duster, spray bottle, and working mini vacuum. Check. Art supplies and Legos. Check. Closet full of mermaid princess costumes. Check.

In the mind of a three year old, there are no limitations. You can literally be anything you want and you can be as many things as you want. Researchers, parents, and teachers, spend a lot of time and effort talking about adolescence, what it is, what it means, what’s happening. For me, the biggest discovery of adolescence - I mean, big flashing 50 foot tall sign type of discovery - is scarcity. This is the time when you realize, “Oh wait, I can’t be a cowboy, ballerina, astronaut, president. I’ve got to narrow this sh!t WAAAY down.” The world suddenly becomes very big and very small all at once. There’s an infinite array of choices, but you’ve got to pick and you’ve got to pick while walking a tight rope balancing 5 plates with a weasel crawling around in your hoodie. So just like hiring managers pouring through massive piles of resumes, you start looking for quick and easy disqualifiers [2]. There’s a typo on this resume. Trash. This person doesn’t have a degree. Trash. There are very few girls scientists. Trash. Science is for boys. Trash. I’d have to give up a lot to be a girl scientist. Trash.

So . . . is there nothing we can do? Is this just a viscous cycle of inescapable socialization? Not at all! There are some really great rays of hope. After all, lots of girls (not half, but still a good chunk) do choose science and there things we can do to help more girls view science as “thinkable.”

 Leaping the Gender STEM Chasm  Image Credit: P. Kim

Leaping the Gender STEM Chasm

Image Credit: P. Kim

Bucking the Trend

Among girls and women who identity with scientists, two common themes emerge in their narratives of how they came to love science: mentors and peers. 

Opening Up the World of Science

Every girl I have ever spoken to who identifies with science talks about a teacher [3]. They talk about teachers who brought so much enthusiasm and passion to science that their love for the subject was infectious. They talk about projects and activities that encourage creativity and centered on investigation. They describe instruction that enables students to see themselves as agentic beings in the world of science.

“He made science feel so fun it didn't really feel like the science that we

used to do.”

“Well, she's just fun! I mean, she won't let you off if you don't finish your homework, [but] she just finds a way to make everything interesting.”

In their excellent 2014 paper, Carlone, Scott & Lowder juxtapose two different classrooms. In the classroom of 4th grade teacher Ms. Wolfe the idea of what makes someone good at science is broadened to include creativity, supporting the learning of peers, and asking interesting questions. In Ms. Wolfe’s classroom the “celebrated figure” of the scientist was constructed much more inclusively than the fuzzy haired old white dude of stereotypes. Children had many venues to develop their own style and approach to building a science identity. None of which were centered on getting the “right answer.” A diverse array of children in Ms. Wolfe’s class identified as being good scientists. Each had his/her own way of being a good scientist that was personal and included their own intellectual and social strengths. Enthusiasm for the subject was high among her students.

Two years later, the same students were in the classroom of Mr. Campbell which was structured around the traditional ideas of completing worksheets and getting right answers. Knowledge in this classroom was passed from the teacher to the students and questions were for clarification, not creativity or curiosity. Gendered ideas about science were prevalent in the classroom. It was clear that Mr. Campbell, while thought of as a nice and “fun” teacher, was rooted in traditional ideas of what it takes to be a good scientist (compliant, perfect, organized). There was a notable dip in enthusiasm for science in Mr. Campbells class and a much narrower field of students who identified (and were identified by peers) as scientists.

How teachers approach the idea of the scientists and the role of students in their science education can make a difference in students identity development. I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it long after everyone just rolls their eyes and says, “I know, mom/Dr. Todd, I know!” Welcoming all children into the world of science and supporting the adoption of science identities is as, if not more important, than the content we teach them. 

Peers: Push and Pull

Another theme I’ve observed in the literature and from my own research is the presence of science-engaged female peers. Girls who unabashedly enjoy science and pursue it with vigor have peers and friends who share their interest. Having a group of friends to “nerd out” with and do experiments with is a way to overcome the gender STEM thinkability gap. The girls with the most positive outlooks about their future as scientists, in my research, are the ones who talk about doing science experiments at home with friends. They talk about taking apart electronics picked up at thrift stores, weekends spent wrecking the kitchen doing chemical reactions, and doing school science projects together.

Outside-of-school time with peers also appears as a theme in developing science identities. Tan and colleagues (2013) document an instance of one girls journey from a disengaged science student, to a fully-fledged science identity through an after school environmental science club. Kay, found a voice, and the respect of peers through the informal science club where she used her social skills and drive to become a science leader.

 Peers can just as easily pull girls away from science. Tan and colleagues also found that jumping into more difficult science classes had social costs for minority girls who found themselves as one of the only non-white students in their classrooms and also due to scheduling conflicts, no longer shared classes or lunch time with their longtime friends. The pull to remain with fellow minority peers who understood their history and personality was strong for girls in this position. Many girls may feel a loss of connection with friends who do not share their interest in science, while boys will be much more likely to find relatable peers in the science milieu.

Concluding Thoughts

For girls who find passionate, inviting science teachers and peers who share their interest, science can be a wonderful playground of discovery and integrate into an enduring identity. Of course, finding those teachers and peers is the trick no, isn't it?

In my own research, however, I have found that just one teacher who welcomes girls into the world of science can make a huge difference, especially when girls can maintain contact with that teacher. Some do this by volunteering in their old classrooms and through clubs and special projects. 

Parents can also play a role in helping girls build science engaged peer groups. More than a few girls I’ve known have “tricked” their friends into enjoying science with the help of parents. Families who have the time and resources to invite friends along to science outings (nature hikes, museum visits) can help foster interest in their daughters peers. Some parents go above and beyond, providing girls with fun weekend science activities, often bringing in elements of creativity that appeal science and non-science oriented children. I’ve known parents to weave arts and crafts and baking into lessons on chemical reactions, reflected light, and botany. It can be a tall order, especially for parents who themselves feel intimidated by science, but even an occasional small activity in which girls are free to explore the scientific world, outside of school, among friends, can be a powerful bonding experience.


[1] Yes, Alicia is real. No that’s not her name. Yes, she really was just the nicest person ever.

[2] Yes, I like metaphors. It’s not technically mixing metaphors if just serially stack them on top of one another.

[3] In a sad corollary, I have also heard plenty of tales from girls about how a teacher has damaged her connection to science or a particular discipline.


Archer, L., et al. (2013). "'Not girly, not sexy, not glamorous': primary school girls' and parents' constructions of science aspirations." Pedagogy, Culture & Society 21(1): 171-194.

Blickenstaff, J. C. (2005). "Women and science careers: Leaky pipeline or gender filter?" Gender and Education 17(4): 369-386.

Carlone, H. B., et al. (2014). "Becoming (less) scientific: A longitudinal study of students’ identity work from elementary to middle school science." Journal of Research in Science Teaching 51(7): 836-869.

Cvencek, D., et al. (2011). "Math-gender stereotypes in elementary school children." Child Development 82(3): 766-779.

Todd, B. (2015). Little Scientists: Identity, Self-Efficacy, and Attitudes Toward Science in a Girls' Science Camp. Educational Methodology, Policy, and Leadership. Eugene, OR, University of Oregon. PhD: 313.

Nerding While Female

I am a dork. A dweeb. A nerd. A geek. Have been since it back in the day when those were insults. I’ve got nerd cred a mile wide and Everest deep. I learned Basic on an IBM clone in the 80s. I owned pirated VHS copies of Explorers, War Games, Short Circuit, and The Last Starfighter. I listened to They Might Be Giants. I’m an old school platformer with mad skills and I can tell you where all the hidden passages, power ups and secret endings are in Super Mario Brothers from the first NES game through Mario 64 and beyond (Including the Lost Levels -  released as Super Mario Bros 2 in Japan). I demolish my comic book reading, old school D&D playing husband at online tests of Geek knowledge. 

Nerd and geek culture have historically been closely associated with an interest in science. Not every nerd is a science person and not every science person is a nerd, but there’s a pretty long history between the two. For girls and women like me, nerd-dom and science share a pretty key problem – gatekeeping and credential checking.

I’m a science educator, I run science outreach programs. While most of my time is spent on higher level matters, I get plenty of time on the ground directly doing science with kids. One of the things I do each year is recruiting for our programs. This involves visiting local schools to give quick flashy demonstrations, teach a little science, and plug our programs. When I go on trips, I make sure to play the part. I wear the lab coat, the goggles, and gloves. I also wear t-shirts from shows and games I enjoy and know kids will recognize.  Many kids compliment my choices. Well, girls do. Boys are another matter.

Uncannily, and without fail, at the end of my demo, or even sometimes during, a male student between the ages of 11-14 will interrogate my knowledge of the icon I’m wearing. 

“Do you reallyplay Fallout?”

“Which one is Fineas and which one is Ferb?”

“Do you know who all of those Nicktoons on your shirt actually are?”

Yes. Ferb has the green hair. Rug rats, Angry Beavers, Hey Arnold, CatDog, Aah! Real Monsters, and Rockos Modern Life – all of which, I might add were on the air before you were born.

One kid actually grilled me on all the Easter eggs in the intro sequence to Gravity Falls. I played my Gravity Falls ringtone for him.

They’re not really challenging my knowledge of a particular property, they’re challenging my right to be in “their” sphere. The fact that girls and women make up a huge component (and often the majority) of fandoms does not dissuade these little gatekeepers from demanding my credentials at the door.

 Image Credit: B Todd

Image Credit: B Todd

Now you could argue that their suspicion comes from my adult status, rather than my gender, but it doesn’t. I know because male instructors who wear similar apparel just get compliments or asked about their favorite parts of property x [1]. 

It’s kind of cute, at first, watching them try to play it cool when I unleash the tsunami of useless pop culture information I’ve collected over 4 decades, but after a while it gets really tiring. After a while, it stops being cute. It’s just another collection of microaggressions

There’s a sad and sour absurdism to the fact that our culture anoints even preadolescent males to police the identities of women old enough to be their mothers or even grandmothers. Women experience this in many spheres, pop culture and science, but also sports and technology.

If a man wears the jersey of a sports team, he is presumed to be a fan. If a woman wears it, she is presumed to be on the bandwagon with a male in her life who is a fan and will be subjected to inquiries about whether she is a “real” fan. Women will also be held to higher standards for being able to claim fandom. 

The same goes for science. Boys and men who express an interest in science or actively pursue science education and careers are presumed to have 1) genuine interest, 2) be competent unless they demonstrate otherwise, and 3) are accepted in their choices. Women who express interest in science or actively pursue science education and careers are more likely to 1) have their interest questioned, 2) be presumed to be less competent, and 3) be treated warily by in group members

Women in STEM disciplines report being asked to prove their competence and credentials over and over again. In a truly comic instance, transgendered neuroscientist Ben Barres reported overhearing some of his colleagues commenting that his work had always been “better than his sisters.” Professor Barres, who transitioned only a few years earlier had no sister in neuroscience.

The problem of “the poser” is hardly new. It is often cloaked in a search for “authenticity” to make sure that casual other don’t “pollute” a pristine space for those who genuinely “belong,” but really it’s plain old exclusion. This becomes rather obvious when you look at who is challenged and who is not.

I’m a grown woman with a PhD and a lot of experience dealing with exclusion both personally and from research and teaching perspective and I can confirm, it’s exhausting and demoralizing. It’s also difficult to challenge in the moment. Sure, I can prove my bona fides, but I shouldn’t have to. What else should I say, though? “Hey tiny male human, it’s cute that you think you get to decide if I’m nerd enough, but you’re just being a tool of patriarchy.” I’m not sure that would be effective. Sometimes I turn it back on them. “Yes, I do like such and such. What do you like about it? What is your favorite character?” Honestly, they usually don’t catch what I’ve done, but I’m an older woman in a position of authority. I remember being younger and feeling like I had to prove myself. Let’s face it, as women, we often we dohave to prove ourselves. Opportunities and evaluations may depend on men approving of us and the deck is stacked. Even when we’re not dealing with an potential authority figure, we’re conditioned from an early age to be compliant and polite. When we push back we’re “abrasive” and “pushy” or for girls, the dreaded “bossy.”

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to help girls push back, and there are some tactics, but 1) it’s not reasonable to expect adolescents to suavely push back in situations that fluster grown adults 2) as I’ve mentioned before the notion that “fixing the girls” as a solution is just wrong

What we really need is to be collectively working on the gatekeepers, pushing  back against double standards of competence and belonging, training our sons to interrogate their own notions of what “belongs” to boys and boys alone, and recognizing that very little in life is a zero sum game. Including more girls and women in the world of STEM is not taking something away from the boys and men, it’s giving everyone more. More creativity, more collaboration, allies.


So how does one deal with microagression theater? There’s no perfect answer, but here are some tips I’ve found helpful.

One tactic I advocate for is using L'esprit de l'escalier. This is French term, meaning the “wit of the staircase.” It’s when you think of a snappy comeback right after it’s too late. The thing is, the rude, stupid, and exclusionary things people do and say follow themes. Start paying attention and you’ll notice these themes. Spend a little time thinking of how you want to handle them the next time and give it a try. See what happens, refine you technique. Carry note cards (Nothing cools some ones jets like waiting for you to pull a notecard out of your bag and then reading it to them). Read or simply state your prepared response, and the, this part is important, stop talking. Resist the urge to qualify, or joke, or lighten the verbal punch. Just let it sit in the silence. It can be quite therapeutic to watch the verbal salad that starts spewing out of people when you calmly and flatly call out their rudeness and dump it in their laps.

I like the notecard bit because it really drives home how unoriginal the aggression is. If there’s a prepared crard, it’s clearly not new to you.

 Here are some sample texts you can use: 

“That was very rude.

“That is inappropriate.”

“Are you really interested in my answer? Because it sounds like you just want me to agree with you/shut up/accept your ludicrous premise.”

“Why do you ask?”

“I’m sorry, could you repeat that . . . Nope, still didn’t get it. I thought you said, X, but that would be very rude. What did you say?”

“Yeah, I know.”


“I’m not going to answer that.”

“I’m so sorry. This must be very embarrassing for you.”

“I’ll give you a moment to get your foot out of your mouth.”


[1] Poetically, the only shirt I wear that I don’t actually have a personal connection with is a kawaii-style figure called Pusheen. I had no idea who Pusheen was when I bought the shirt, but I thought it looked cute and I needed a third shirt for the buy 2 get one free deal. No one has ever questioned my right to wear Pusheen, as kawaii is traditionally the realm of women and girls.

Future Posts

We’ve got lots of content to cover in the next six months. Here is a list of upcoming posts with dates.

December 6th - Growing the Gap

Why girls participant in STEM gets lower as they get older.

December 13th - They didn’t even know they were doing science

A story about the best science teachers and science students I’ve ever met. I guarantee it’s not what you’re thinking.

December 20th - Failure

Make a friend out of everyone’s worst enemy and reclaim the F-word.

December 27th - Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

Practical tips for doing science outreach

January 3rd - “Real Science” vs School Science

What kids think about the science they learn and the science they want to do

January 10th - Mindsets

An overview of Dweck’s research into how we thing about our own learning potential

January 17th - Self-Segregation: Only Girl in the Room

How stereotypes about science keep girls from joining in

January 24th - Logic Model!

An overview of how SPICE takes theory and puts it into practice

January 31st - Understanding obstacles to engaging with and enjoying science

Why your daughter doesn’t want to go to robotics club

February 7th - Science Identity Archetypes

Overview of original research on how girls think about scientists and their own ways of doing science from the SPICE Program

February 14th - Archetypes: Experts

How high achieving girls relate to science and how formal classrooms alienate them

February 21 - Archetypes: Inventors

Girls just want to have science that does good and makes cool stuff

February 28th Archetypes: Experimenters

Science as intrepid exploration

March 7 - Self-Efficacy and the Role of Social Persuasion

Role models and feedback in science

March 14th - Combating Instrumentalism

The importance of learning to love science as science and not just a tool

March 21 - Self-Efficacy - Vicarious Learning

Shared learning and peer-modeling

March 28 - Don’t hand out the supplies!

Practical tips for implementing science outreach with young children

April 4th - Why Can’t I Just Do Some Science With Kids?

The trap of expertise in teaching science to non-experts

April 11th - Self-Efficacy and Mastery Experiences

The best way to feel good about your ability to do the thing is to DO THE THING!

April 18th - Finding Opportunities and Framing Science

How to find opportunities for science engagement for your children/students

April 25th - Intersectionality

It’s not just gender. A wide range of factors influence kids choices around science

May 2nd - What can you say about your outreach at the end of the day?

How to evaluate your outreach efforts in a meaningful way without going insane.

May 9th - Figured worlds and celebrated subject positions

Creating a landscape that welcomes diverse students to the world of STEM

May 16th - So, you’ve got and gotten yourself involved in a science education controversy!

Learn how not to do what I did and how to handle criticism

May 23 - Making Opportunities

How to create opportunities for your kids/students to engage with science

A Brief History of Thinking about Girls and Science

In 2013 girls swept the Google science fair. Their projects were the results of hundreds of hours of work, of creativity, of failures and persistence, and of passion. Even my cynical heart melts and I have to fight tearing up every time I see the picture of them holding their Lego trophies. The news of their victory went around the world. Millions shared their photos and stories online. Teachers showed it to students, parents showed it to sons and daughters. Advocates used it to illustrate how far girls have come. Some trolls no doubt used in their attempts to show that boys are the real victims of all this affirmative action and girls positivity. It meant a lot of different things to a lot of people. But it was not the first time a group of girls demolished their male peers in test of scientific prowess. Not by a long shot.

 Image Credit: P. Kim

Image Credit: P. Kim

1845 – Boston 

There were no movie theaters, nor were there scantron sheets for scoring tests. A popular way to demonstrate student knowledge was to hold public examinations. Literally, people would put on their nice clothes and head to the local, school, church, community hall, to watch a bunch of secondary students be grilled by teachers and experts in their relative fields.

 On this night, the hall was packed. Typically, these examinations were dominated by males and focused on the classics and maybe some mathematics. This year, the examinations would also feature natural philosophy and participants would be from schools serving boys and girls (most secondary schooling at this point was private, gender segregated and paid for by parents). Public examinations were how schools showed parents and other stakeholders the value of the education provided. Preparation for the examinations was rigorous and noted for creating a sense of terror in students.

 I imagine people packed in, wearing their scratchy Sunday clothes with stiff collars (and no fabric softener). They there proceeded to watch girls demolish the boys, answering twice as many questions correctly with the girls from the best single-education girls school Bowdoin, outperforming the males of the best boys school, Brimmer, across the board, not just in science education. This of course, did not stop district officials from rating the boys school as the best overall Boston secondary school.

 Of course, in reality, there was no cinema-style show down. Boys and girls, while examined publicly, were examined at their own schools, likely on different days. Girls superior performance in natural philosophy (typically focused in the areas of geography – which had a much broader scope than we think of today -  and astronomy) were not all that surprising to people of the time. That is because, in the early days of the United States, natural philosophy was considered a logical fit for the fairer sex, while males were considered to be superior in the classics (languages and literature). 

 Ladies were all up in the natural philosophy house.

Ladies were all up in the natural philosophy house.

 In her excellent research monograph, The Science Education of American Girls: A Historical Perspective, Kim Tolley presents mountains of evidence in the form of school records, advertisements, period essays, and personal diaries about the state of girls secondary education in 19thcentury America and beyond. What she finds is that for much of American history, girls schools were more likely to teach natural philosophy (what we now call the sciences) than boys schools. Natural philosophy was believed to be in alignment with girls destinies to be wives and mothers. Women employed as tutors and governesses were expected to be knowledgeable about geography, geology, and surveying. Girls (well, wealthy girls) and their mentors were encouraged to explore outdoors, observe, and experiment with the natural world. 

 It’s only with the rise of industrialization, and the increased realization that the future of the nation lay in innovation, that the “natural” order in which women studied science and men were masters of the classics began to turn on its head. In the post-civil war era a shift in thinking about science began that would eventually lead to the professionalization, and masculinization, of the sciences in America (and around much of the world). 

 Renaissance and enlightenment science was the realm of the well-heeled who didn’t need to work for a living (though working classes had been innovating from the dawn of time – they just didn’t get credit for their creations). Just look at the list. Newton, Darwin, Boyle, Cavendish. All independently wealthy and able to fund their own research. Science was not considered a vocation (if it had been, not so many gentleman would have tried their hand at it). In fact science was often presented as parlor tricks and entertainment. The most famous science magician in history being American’s own Ben Franklin [1]. And while gentleman (and women) scientists introduced many innovations and discoveries, it wasn’t until the industrial revolution began that the economic and social potential of science as a career path was realized. 

 Industrialization produced incredible wealth through mass manufacturing, improvements in transportation, and communication, and in public health. Where there’s money to be made, there’s power to be had. In patriarchal society, where there’s power to be had, you better bet that men are going to be there to take it. So it was that increasingly, science began to be thought of as a realm of men and not women. Women were increasingly pushed out of the sciences, though in truth, they never really left, continuing to innovate by discovering pulsarspioneering theory behind nuclear fissionmaking massive strides in public health, and discovering that genetics determine sex. They just didn’t get the accolades or credit.

 As educational priorities shifted and women were shunted away from the sciences, gaps in performance in these areas grew. For some time, this was not considered anything to be concerned about. It was just a natural upshot of women’s biological inferiority at mathematical and scientific subjects. In the 60s and 70s as the space race was going full steam and more and more women entered the workforce, educators, policy makers, and feminists were starting to notice these gendered gaps in STEM fields and looking for ways to fix the problem. A problem society had created be shunting women to the margins of math and science. Thus began the modern debate over gender disparities in STEM and a series of efforts to correct the problem.

 I like to think of the attempts to address gender disparities in terms of 4 waves [2,3]– 

  1.             Fix the Girls

  2.             Fix the Curriculum and Teachers

  3.             Fix the Culture

  4.             Identities for Science

Early attempts at narrowing gaps focused on finding and remediating deficiencies in girls, providing extra attention to teach girls STEM disciplines and bringing up test scores. AKA, lets fix those girls!It didn’t take long before researchers [4] began to realize, that gaps were not due to deficiencies in girls, but rather with curriculum and teaching. Text books were jam-packed with gendered examples (boys as doctors, girls as nurses), sports analogies for processes in the natural world, and heavily gender biased teaching. Moves were made to make curriculum more gender inclusive and relatable. Only so much could be done with text books though. Science and mathematics at the secondary level were overwhelmingly taught by men, and girls were largely overlooked and provided with low expectations in the science and mathematics classrooms. Oh wait, that’s still going on today.Yay!

In the 80s and 90s, researchers and policy makers focused on revising curriculum and looking at ways to shift pedagogy to be more female inclusive. It worked, to point. Girls did start improving on standardized tests, and outstripped boys in grades and number of science courses taken. Some achievement gaps do remain. Even well into the 21stcentury girls are less likely to take physics, engineering, or computer science courses, and teachers in most science subjects remain overwhelmingly male. Strides had been made, but girls still weren’t choosing science.

In the 90s feminist academics and women in STEM began pointing to the culture of science for evidence as to why girls were not choosing science. Despite closing achievement gaps, STEM remained an unattractive option for girls. Stereotypes about science and women’s and girls real experiences with STEM education and careers painted a rather unflattering view of life as a STEM professional. Researchers pointed to the masculine construction of the idea of science that permeates culture (competitive, isolated, requiring effortless brilliance), the lack of relatable mentors, and sexual harassment in the classroom and workplace. It’s hard to say much has changed on this front, even as recently as 2016, sexual harassment scandalshave plagued academic disciplines in science. Though the fact that there are scandals and reporting on them is a sign that women’s complaints are being heard.

While researchers, educators, policy makers, and STEM professionals continue to address STEM curriculum, teaching, and culture, a new wave of researchers are looking at STEM identities as both an explanation for the continued gender gap and a possible solution. Research has found a substantial “thinkability” gap around most STEM careers for girls and women [5]. Most girls simply aren’t thinking about careers in STEM, and if they do, the option doesn’t seem very appealing. The image of science as masculine has been carefully cultivated by our society for over 100 years. Improving test scores isn’t going to change such core conceptions of who does and doesn’t belong with a few new text books and a photo of a couple of girls holding Lego trophies.

Improving the quality of STEM education has been a priority for educators, researchers, and policy makers for years. Most states have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (or similar standards) with the intent of making STEM curriculum more modern and inquiry-based. There is a huge body of research behind the standards and how inquiry-based learning provides students with a better grasp of key STEM concepts. What is missing from these standards is guidance on how to teach the “soft” side of STEM. No, I don’t me soft like girls, “oh, girls are soft,” I mean soft like social. Even the best curriculum can’t prevent gendered bias from playing out in the classroom. Educators need clear guidance with practical training on how to make the STEM classroom more inclusive and responsive. This is one place where the world of formal education can learn from informal programs like SPICE, where motivational theories have been operationalized and put in to practice for years with positive, measurable results.


 [1] OK, so Franklin wasn’t really a gentleman scientists, but rather a Yankee entrepreneur, but still. He was a great one for parlor tricks.

 [2] Brotman, J. S. and F. M. Moore (2008). "Girls and science: A review of four themes in the science education literature." Journal of Research in Science Teaching 45(9): 971-1002.

[3] Blickenstaff, J. C. (2005). "Women and science careers: Leaky pipeline or gender filter?" Gender and Education 17(4): 369-386.

[4] Lets be honest, maleresearcher began to realize this. Women already knew they were as smart as men.

[5] Archer, L., et al. (2012). "“Balancing acts”: Elementary school girls’ negotiations of femininity, achievement, and science." Science Education 80(1): 967-989.



A Tale of Two Girl Scientists

Alex and Elaine both attended three years of SPICE camp. Both had enviable masses of shiny hair, braces, and rocked awesome nerd glasses. Both were straight A students who participated in TAG and after school academics. Both loved science and intended to pursue careers in STEM. Elaine would smile wide any time she was asked about doing science. She would describe projects she’d done, teachers who encouraged here, and weekend science parties with friends. Alex also enjoyed talking about doing science, documentaries she’d watched, books she enjoyed, and her science fair project. But underneath the enthusiasm was a barely hidden frustration. What was going on to make these girls experiences and expressions different? Was it just their personalities, or was something more going on? 

8_alex elaine sm.png

Elaine is soft spoken and a little shy, but she lights up when talking about science. When asked if she’s ever felt discourage in science she talks about how she knows there’s a fair amount of sexism around science, but she’s never experienced it herself. She describes teachers who encourage her to experiment and support her interests through extra projects and after school clubs. She also talks about her friends. Elaine has a group of friends who all love science. They get together to have disassembly parties where they take apart mechanical toys to try and figure out how the insides work. They test out chemical reactions. They share science fiction books and TV shows they like. They work on school projects together. Their parents take turns hosting the girls activities on weekends and after school. Elaine has an ecosystem of science supporters and she couldn’t be happier with her science experiences.

Alex is outspoken, organized, and definite about what she likes and doesn’t like. Everywhere she goes, she has a book, wrapped in a quilted cover. She loves to read and she loves science. Alex is a science ninja. She’s better than good at science and she knows it. She also knows that her peers don’t necessarily see it that way. You see, Alex had an arch nemesis, sort of. Alan, was also very good at science. Alex and Alan were always neck and neck . . . sort of. The thing was, Alex was actually the better all around at math and science student. She asked more questions, did extra credit projects for fun, and completed generally better quality assignments. But Alan did well on standardized tests, some times, and more importantly, when the question of who the best science students were came up, Alan’s name was always the first out of people’s mouths. Alex was hardly mentioned at all. Alex didn’t actually see Alanas her arch nemesis. It was the idea of Alan that plagued her. The idea that her peers did not see the two of them in same light, despite her many accomplishments. This frustrated Alex to no end.

 When her school decided to hold a robotics afterschool club, students were invited based on TAG status, but anyone could actually attend. So Alex cajoled a friend who was smart, but not TAG identified, into going with her. They showed up for the first meeting, walked in the door, saw they were the only girls and looked at each other. Nope. They didn’t go back. “I looked in that room full of boys and thought, ‘Great, thisagain.’”

 Alex had two really close friends. They read books together, had frequent sleepovers, and shared a lot of interests, except science. Sometimes, her friends would humor her and talk about science fiction she liked or go to the science museum with her. But Alex had learned to ration these episodes. She knew there was a limit to how much her friends wanted to indulge her science interests and she didn’t want to push the bounds of friendship too far. 

 Alex’s frustration with her peers was two-fold. First, she wasn’t getting the recognition she deserved based on her accomplishments. Second, she didn’t have any female peers to share her love of science with. Like Elaine, Alex has supportive parents and teachers who encourage her interest in science, but her ecosystem is weak. It’s missing a cornerstone element, peers who share her interest and recognize her accomplishments.

 When I interviewed them in 2014, Alex and Elaine both enacted signals of a science identity that I call the “expert” girl scientist. Expert-type girls view science as a realm of rigorous study and a mastery. For these girls scientists are people who work very hard the become, well, experts. A major component to being an expert, is being recognized for one’s expertise. Research shows, that in general, girls and women receive less recognition for their scientific accomplishments and in Alex’s case, it’s showing. She has noticed the disparity and it’s frustrating the heck out of her.

 Alex and Elaine are in high school and thriving, but it remains to be seen if science is in their futures. Both are highly motivated learners. They also have lots of options. If Alex doesn’t find peers who share her interest and receive the recognition her accomplishments deserve, there are plenty of other areas of study she can pursue where she will find those missing elements.

 Time will tell.

Simplified Identity Formation Theory

Welcome to theory corner! Today’s blog post is addresses identity theory in the context of science motivation. 

Identity, in the psychosocial sense, is the means by which individuals comprehend themselves to be unique and discrete from others but also connected to others through social affiliations. Identity is a balancing act between distinctiveness and affiliation resting on a sense of continuity, or personal narrative..

Erik Erikson (born 1902) was a guy who understood what it is to have identity issues. His parents hid his rather scandalous origins from him for many years [1]. Turns out his father was his adopted father. His mother had been married when she became pregnant with Erik by another (never named) man and fled her home in Denmark for Germany. Erikson who was Jewish also had to deal with anti-semitism from Christian Germans and mockery for his Norse looks (probably inherited from his Danish father) from fellow Jewish children.  

Erikson definitely had skin in the game when it came to understanding the importance of the personal narrative in building an identity. He’d had his own identity challenged and unsettled plenty. Despite never holding an advanced degree, Erikson became a preeminent theorist and researcher and is consider the progenitor of modern identity theory. In his work, Erikson identified 8 stages of identity development over the human lifespan that are represented by identity conflicts that individuals must resolve in order to move on [2]. The most studied of these stages is known as “Identity vs Role Confusion”  and covers the adolescence age group. The result of this particular identity conflict has some of the most consequential results for individual identity development. 

A number of researchers have expanded on Erikson’s work. One particular formulation of youth identity development that I’ve found useful in my work and research is the Simplified Identity Formation Theory (SIFT)[3]. SIFT authors Côte and Levine, lay out three key elements of identity development continuityintegration, and differentiation. Building on these foundational concepts they lay out a nuanced, but intuitive approach to thinking about adolescent identity formation. 

Before I dive into the SIFT, I should like to point out that there is no “one” master explanation for human identity development. What I mean by this is not that we haven’t hit on the exact right arrangement yet, but that rather, humans are malleable, social creatures, capable of radically different developmental processes. In the natural sciences we tend to think foundationally. That is, the more we investigate and research the closer we get to understanding the exact way the universe works. Applying this foundationalist approach to the human ecosystem would be a mistake. Conceptions of identity are heavily culturally rooted and the process by which identity formation takes place is dependent on this context. That is to say, what I’m about to describe is a pretty good approach to understanding youth identity formation in the developed world of the early 21st century. 

Côte and Levine present the ideas of differentiation and integration as balancing act mediated by narrative continuity. An individual with a stable identity (personal narrative), feels distinct from others, but also has connections and ties to social groups and individuals. If something about a core narrative (continuity) is challenged or found to be false, the balance can be radically shifted. If the balance gets off kilter, identity crisis occurs. 

To demonstrate the ecological process by which identity formation takes place, Côte and Levine propose a triadic identity model. I’ve taken some liberties with their original elegant model involving a few ovals and arrows to visually represent the various identity types and processes in with a science focus.

 Image Credit: B. Todd

Image Credit: B. Todd

At the top we see social identity. This is the level at which individuals are influence by social contexts and pressures to fit into available objective identities. These roles tend to be the “big ticket” demographic items (race/ethnicity, gender, class) as well as socially defined aspirational roles such as occupation or education status, though it’s important to note that not all people integrate their work/education into their identity. That tends to be a feature of the professional more than the working classes.

 Social Identity - The surface stuff everyone sees can dictate many identity options and heavily influence even more.

Social Identity - The surface stuff everyone sees can dictate many identity options and heavily influence even more.

Personal Identityis the interstitial zone between social identities and individually unique traits and experiences. This can be thought of as “style” or persona. Personal identity is very important in youth and you can see them trying on and defining a personal style through clothing, interest in cultural properties like music and entertainment, and social roles like “athlete” or “drama kid” or “slacker.”  

 Personal identity expression in adolescents often involves dress and persona types.

Personal identity expression in adolescents often involves dress and persona types.

Ego Identity is the individual sense of continuity and narrative and manifests in commitments, goals, and beliefs. It can be thought of as a sense of purpose. All three identity levels have both internal and external components, but ego identity is the most reliant on idiosyncratic nature and differentiation.

 Ego identity is rooted in personal narratives about commitments and goals. Family, friendships, career aspirations, and key group associations are part of the personal continuity.

Ego identity is rooted in personal narratives about commitments and goals. Family, friendships, career aspirations, and key group associations are part of the personal continuity.

We talk about identity as though it were a fixed property with events (conflicts/crises) that are resolved for ever and ever, but in reality, identity is a constantly ongoing and shifting process. Once integrated, identities tend to stick around, but they shift in importance and relevance over time and even from setting to setting. 

I like to give this example of a change in identity over time. The summer before 7thgrade my best friend and I spend nearly every day playing badminton in my yard. We got pretty good for a couple of 12 year-olds and when school started we won the 7thperiod girls badminton tournament. Neither of us were at allathletic (I could frequently be found wheezing on the sidelines of gym class or whining about the simplest activities) but we put in the work and for that short 3 day period we were gods of the badminton court. We were praised and mentored by parents, grudgingly acknowledged by peers, and given literal pats on the back by our teacher. We even beat our social nemesis in the final match (despite their attempts to cheat). It had all the makings of classic mini heroes journey. For years, I shared the tale of our victory with anyone who would listen and proudly called myself a badminton player. Over time, as other identities to precedence, badminton queen largely dropped out of my thoughts. But, to this day, when badminton is mentioned, I perk up and will proudly tell the story of my 7thgrade victory. Here’s the thing though. I’m just not that good at badminton. A reasonably well motivated 12 year old could punk adult me. I haven’t even played for years. But somewhere underneath educator, and nerd, and parent, is a tiny little identity as Brandy, Badminton Player. That’s the power of identity.

OK, back to the model. The real meat of the matter is in the interactions between the identity levels and how the social and interpersonal interacts with the intrapersonal.

Starting at the top and moving clockwise on the model (this is entirely arbitrary, you can actually start anywhere), you see how social identity location can limit available personal identities. This limitation takes place in the form of validationand challenges. Take my once four year old son and his love of mermaid princess costumes [4] and you can immediately imagine the sorts of challenges a male child might get to this sort of personal identity expression. Often, individuals don’t even need to get to the point of external identity challenge before discarding a personal identity expression. The mere expectationthat there might be challenges can deter expression. This is where social norms and stereotypes are so powerful.

 Adolescents observe behavior and identity expressions.

Adolescents observe behavior and identity expressions.

Take our example girl, she enjoys science and does well at it. She might aspire to become a scientist someday. However, the only models of female scientists she sees are biologists and veterinarians. She also sees lots of messages about scientists being weird and socially awkward. She thinks, maybe a career in marine biology or biochemistry would be good. She could do science and work with animals or help develop medicines in a discipline with plenty of other women. 

Moving between personal and ego identity are individual interpretations of identity displays. This is a processes of internalization of the cumulative validations and challenges (perceived and actual). At this phase the individual synthesizes interactions into the ego identity, makes modifications, and adopts identity strategies for the future. The result is a sense of the “type” of person one is. Some of this work goes on unconsciously and some is very conscious and goal oriented. “How can I fit in with group X? What behaviors or expressions will help me gain status? How can I avoid embarrassment or censure?”

 As individuals receive validation they internalize norms, concepts, and behaviors about the forming identity and synthesize them with the internal sense of self.

As individuals receive validation they internalize norms, concepts, and behaviors about the forming identity and synthesize them with the internal sense of self.

As our future marine biologist spends time learning more about science and aquatic animals she’s also learning about how scientists act and how others react to girl scientists. She receives approval for her interest in rescuing wildlife (consistent with gender ideas of women as caring). Family and friends give her stuffed starfish and dolphins and books about the ocean. She hears messages that math is hard, girls aren’t good at math (despite the fact that she performs well in math class) and that a biochemistry career require math. She internalizes the notion that among the sciences, a marine biology career is probably the better fit. 

In next process, the individual self-presents as a member of the identity group using the language and identity displays in social contexts (back to personal identity). Our girl scientist, she refocuses her interest on marine biology, using more of the language and behavior that aligns with a possible career with aquatic animals. She beings using scientific names for animals and becomes familiar with their habitats. She favors clothing that is practical for seaside outings.

 The internal becomes external as the individual begins presenting behavior and other symbols of the identity group.

The internal becomes external as the individual begins presenting behavior and other symbols of the identity group.

Finally, social engagement, the individual joins socially with an identity group through conformation to group norms (with suitable individual differentiation) . . . and we’re back at social identity and the pattern continues on ad infinitum. Our girl scientist joins the “Save the Ocean” club and participates on online chats with marine biologists.

 Integration into the identity group through collective activity.

Integration into the identity group through collective activity.

In this example, our girl got pretty far into a science identity, but her generalized interest in science was quickly channeled into a “gender appropriate” education and career track. Many girls get filtered out of science entirely early on in this process. The importance of this process cannot be over stated. Research shows that attitudes toward science are usually fixed by age 14 [5].

It is generally accepted in psychology that challenges and negative feedback are more powerful than validation. Adolescents in particular are very susceptible to disapproval by peers and parents [6], but especially peers. They are also keenly in tune to social messaging about suitable identities. 

When you consider that adolescents are navigating a number of major social identities, over which they have little control, it can be very challenging to integrate an identity that complicates a major social identity, like say, gender. Stereotypes of science identities are very much at odds with most validated expressions of gender identity. It takes a hardy, or perhaps reallystubborn kid to go against type and risk compromising a core identity like gender. The situation only becomes more fraught for non-conforming or non-binary gender kids who have to navigate a gender identity that doesn’t fit neatly in the preassigned boxes.

As educators, and parents, and role models, it’s up to adults to help kids reframe these stereotypes and create new pathways to building STEM identities that provide a range of ways to be a scientist that do not imperil or challenge core social identities. These can be done by presenting scientists not only as super smart white dudes with poor social skills. We can present scientists as questioners, facilitators, explorers, problem-solvers, and risk takers. We can offer stereotype defying ways of being scientists with as many flavors as the tee-shirt wall at Hot Topic.


[1] Erikson’s life would probably make for a really interesting movie.

[2] Failure to resolve an identity crises is really not fun, but outside of the scope if this article. 

[3] Côte, J. E. and Levine, C.G. (2016) Identity formation, youth, and development: A simplified approach. Psychology Press: New York.

[4] He’s a 14 year old jock now and waves dismissively at me every time I talk about this phase of his life.

[5] Tai, R., et al. (2006). "Planning early for careers in science." Science 312: 1143-1145.

[6] Even though it feels like they live to argue with and dismiss everything we say.

So You Want To Do Science Outreach. Why?

Many practicing scientists, parents, and educators turn their hand to outreach as some point. They offer lab tours, give public lectures, host school day out workshops, coach after school robotics teams, and mentor students working on science fair projects, just to name a few. 

Outreachers spend a their precious time, energy, and resources laser focused on the “what” of outreach, but few take a moment to think about the “why” of outreach. 

I doubt you’ll be surprised to learn that I’m going to argue that the “why” is the most important part of outreach. Everything else should stem from your personal why. Here are just a few reasons why you might want to engage in science outreach:

  •              To address inequities in STEM

  •             To help my child enjoy science learning

  •             To bolster my resume

  •             To try out science teaching

  •             To share my passion for science

 All of these are good reasons to try outreach [1]. Your particular reason should inform how you choose to engage with outreach. What you shouldn’t do is go off and reinvent the wheel creating a program from ether because you think it’s expected or might be a cool thing to do. Outreach is cool, like a puppy or a hamster, and like those small mammals it’s a commitment and if you don’t nourish it, it will die. Of course a dead outreach program isn’t as sad as a dead pet, but you get the idea.

 I’ve known many, many a scientists who have gotten involved in outreach because it seemed like a thing to do. They tried a few furlough day workshops for grade school kids, visited a classroom or two, or mentored a high school student for a summer. In most cases after a while, their careers and family life got busy and the outreach fell by the wayside. They enjoyed their time doing outreach, but aside from a few lines on the resume it never really amounted to anything.

Effective outreach has four elements: clear goals, appropriate theory, engaging activities, and evaluation. All of these things begin with WHY. Without why, you’re just goofing around. Hundreds if not thousands of outreach activities and programs have come and gone. Some were really good. Some are better off gone. We can’t really say much about almost any of them, though, because the people who ran them didn’t follow any process, document what they did, or evaluate their programs. They are, effectively, lost, never to be seen or learned from.

 Image Credit: B. Todd

Image Credit: B. Todd

  It’s sad to me to think of those programs, like the cats in Cats, forgotten, abandoned, eating from garbage cans with other sad, lonely abandoned outreach programs. Singing epic ballads for no one to hear [4]

Let this be a lesson so we may save future outreach programs from the dustbins of education history! To that end, here is Brandy’s, definitely not patented, short guide to starting with outreach.

Why do you want to do outreach?

 Be honest! It’s going to be a lot easier to set reasonable goals and sustain (or see to completion) your outreach efforts if you have a clear idea of why you’re in it.

Look around to see if someone else is already doing something you could join in on.

Seriously, don’t reinvent the wheel. If you’re looking to try out informal teaching, if you want to share your passion for science, or if you want to pad your resume . . . I mean flesh out your experience. You can probably do that with an existing program. See what groups are doing science outreach around you. Find out what their goals and focus are. You may be able to slot into their programs and save yourself the hassle of handling administration and recruiting participants.

Set goals!

This applies to joining other groups or starting your own outreach program/event. What do you want to achieve? What is reasonable with the time and resources you have available?  How might you go about measuring success (more about that in a bit)? Remember, in science, if you can’t measure it, it didn’t happen [3].

Align your goals to an appropriate theory and/or practice!

 I can guarantee you, whatever it is you want to achieve, a lot of really smart people have already done work that can help you do better science outreach. Do you want to increase awareness of a particular career or discipline? Do a little searching on Google Scholar. What have people done before around career awareness? Where did they get the best bang for the buck? Lectures, mentoring, multimedia presentations, job shadowing? Do you want to increase participation in STEM by underrepresented groups? I’ll give you a hint. Developing new curriculum is probably not the best use of your time. Take a look at motivational theories. I’ll even say something blasphemous for an academic. Check out Wikipedia and Youtube while you’re hunting for theory that will be a good fit for you.


Yeah, that’s a 10 dollar word my spell checker doesn’t like. This means, take what you’ve learned in your investigation and set out some concrete practices you will use to meet those goals. Maybe even draw out a logic model


Now that you have goals and practices, think about how you will evaluate what you’ve done. In my program we do a triangulated evaluation with self-reports from our participants, observations and fidelity rubrics completed by researchers, and measures of participant science affinity before and after camp. That’s a lot. You probably don’t need to go that far. 

Why should you evaluate? Well don’t you want to know if worked? Don’t you want to get better at what you’re doing? We’re all science nerds here. What’s a science nerd without data?

Do it again! But better. Or don’t!

 If you tried it and you liked it and you learned something, then you WIN! If you think you’d enjoy doing it again and that you can do it well, then GO FOR IT! If you hated it, then stop! Outreach should be fun for everyone. That means you to!

 That’s it, Brandy’s tried and true method for doing outreach that works without reinventing the wheel.

It sounds like a lot, and it is. So by all means, borrow from what other people have shown works. Join in with experienced outreachers and learn from their past mistakes. And if you have a really great idea that no one else has tried, go for that as well! Just make sure to do your seven steps and keep revisiting them. Over time your goals and practices may need to change. That’s a good thing! It means you’re learning and growing as an outreacher. 

Before I sign off I’ll give you an example of how this process can work for something simpler than a monster like the SPICE program.

The local chapter of Society of Physics Students wants to apply for a $500 grant from the national organization to do outreach so they get together to plan [5].

1)   Why do we as student physicists want to do outreach?

  • Get experience teaching

  • Share our love of physics

  • Inspire young kids to love physics as well

2)   Are there other groups doing outreach or events that we can join?

There are a number of other outreach groups on campus who’ve done similar outreach and there’s a science fair on campus each year that features fun science activity tables in addition to the science fair projects.

3)   What are our goals?

The group decides to focus mostly on attracting kids to physics, but will also do some evaluation of how the teaching aspect went for the group members.

They decide to adapt 4 activities (gravity, forces, diffraction, aerodynamics) from the American Physical Society curriculum for k-8 age kids. They will test simplified versions of these activities out at a table at the science fair and then host their own Saturday physics event a month later. The fair will give them a chance to test and tweak the activities and to make connections to help recruit participants to the Saturday event.

4) Aligning goals and identifying theory

The group asks a STEM outreach practitioner from another program to come and talk to them about how to inspire young children to enjoy science. They learn about some key motivational theories and practices from the guest speaker.

5) Operationalize

They take what they’ve learned from the curriculum and consulting with other groups to develop an approach to how they will lead these lessons. They will use doublespeak to introduce complex science words. They will emphasize big concepts and relate those concepts back to kids lives. They will focus on leading kids to discover natural phenomena through inquiry.

6) Evaluation  

They talk about their goals, look at some research done in education about measuring interest and come up with a short postcard sized survey they hand out to their Saturday workshop participants. They ask kids to report something interesting they learned. Ask them if they feel more likely now to want to learn physics. They have a similar card for parents to complete and ask if parents want to be added to an email listserv to get more info about future events. Afterwards, they poll the group. Were the events a valuable teaching experience? What would they do differently next time? Do they want to have a next time?

7) Future Plans

 The group decides that outreach was more work than they realized, but they liked it and they learned a lot. They agree to make this an annual event, and let local summer camp programs know that a few of their members would be available to do short demonstrations or lead activities with those programs. They write up a 3 page report with color photos from the event and send it off to the national organization, along with their intent to keep participating in outreach.

This is a fairly basic example of doing outreach the right way. These students will be well positioned to do more outreach in the future and are armed with data that will help them show that the efforts were worthwhile and help them improve. Hopefully, over time the group will internalize good outreach practice and increase the sophistication of their evaluation methods. Maybe they’ll partner with an educational researcher or publish a paper in the society journal to share their lessons with other chapters.

 And that’s what good outreach looks like. I’ve seen a lot of outreach in my time as an educator and it’s still pretty shocking how willing people are to sink time and effort into outreach without any clear plan. A lot. A lot of scientists think that because they are experts in their subject area that they will be good at sharing it with others. Very few scientists are naturally good at sharing science with the public. But there’s hope! Everyone can get better. Remember, you wouldn’t expect me to dive into quantum mechanics with only a social science background. So don’t expect to dive into organizing informal learning without at least a little planning and some new learning on your own part. The wonderful thing about science lovers, though, is the we LOVE learning new things.

 Happy outreaching! 


 [1] Yes, it’s totally OK to be career minded!

[2] Psuedonym

[3] Of course if it happened it happened, but good luck proving it without DATA!

[4] No, I’ve never actually seen cats.

One great thing about grant funded outreach is that the sponsor will usually require you to do a lot of the things I’ve laid out above before they will give you money. 

Hey, It’s (another) Blog!

I love living in the internet age. I’m that part of the tail end of Gen X that was still young enough during the rise of the internet to feel perfectly at home online, but also old enough to remember things like card catalogs, World Book, and grandparents who refused to get an answering machine. I remember using a 20 page manual to figure out how to program the VCR to record shows that were on after my bed time. Now I roll my eyes when my parents talk about all the shows jamming up their DVRs. Come on folks! It’s 2018, you can stream anything. Cut the cord!

 I love that when a random question occurs to me I can ask my phone for the answer. Like, “Why does washing cause natural fabrics to shrink?” Questions like these become salient as I sit here typing in a pair of too-tight freshly washed pants. Gah, pants! Always trying to thwart my creativity!

 Arguments that once would rage between friends and family members can be settled with a simple YouTube search. It turns out my husband and I were both wrong. It wasn’t Pluto or a comet that caused a cataclysm in 1997 earth leading to the rise of a techno magic post apocalypse. 

Man, I miss full minute long, narrated cartoon introductions. No, not really. After all, they live forever online, and 70s and 80s cartoons were truly terrible.

 I remember when being a geek was still a bad thing, and got to gleefully watch as my nerdy cohorts rose to prominence among the elites of the technology and entertainment industries. Now I see my childhood icons plastered on artificially aged tee shirts worn by 5 year-olds whose parents are too young to actually remember the pop culture references in which they’ve decked their children. I can deploy my childhood memories as social capital with cool 20-something college students and their middle school-aged younger siblings. It’s . . . weird watching 14 year-olds rock out to my beloved (but admittedly vapid) 80s pop music. It strikes me with a feeling of both familiarity and alienation. Are they making fun of me? Why do they like this? They don’t know the references within or the context of the music, games, and shows they’re streaming endlessly on pocket devices. Does it matter if they do? And then there’s the meta angst of a highly privileged white woman expressing distress at temporal appropriation. I mean come on. It’s not like these kids are donning sugar skull make up and getting drunk on Cinco de Mayo. 

PSA Moment - Hey white kids, don’t culturally appropriate for “cool” costumes. Not cool - End PSA.

 OK, so I went down a bit of a rabbit hole there. The point is, a lot has changed since I was a 9 year old who aspired to be an evil mad scientist when she grew up. So much has changed. But you know what hasn’t changed? The gross underrepresentation of women [1] in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Here’s a nifty chart I stitched together from a bunch of different government reports. Basically, what it shows is that 1) women are underrepresented in most STEM disciplines and 2) the disparity grows the further up the career ladder you look.

Disparity Chart.png

It’s a chart! Women holding STEM degrees/positions as percentage of total (National

Science Board, 2014b, 2014c, 2014d; National Science Foundation, 2011a).

 What does this mean? It means that if I were 9 years old today, I wouldn’t be much more likely to become a man scientist than I was in 1986. Wait, did I just give away how old I am? Again? This is pretty depressing. The bit about women in science, not my age. I love being in my 40s. My store of giving-a-flying-flip has hit epic lows [2]. One thing I do give a flying-flip about is girls and women in science. I give a whole lot of flips about gender disparities in STEM. I spend that time before falling asleep thinking about it. I spend time playing games on my phone thinking about how I should be doing something about gender disparities in STEM instead of placing yet another tile trying to block that blue jerk out of my giant Carcassonne city. Heck, I wrote a 321 page dissertation about gender and STEM [3]. 

 You do not want to read my 321 page dissertation. Seriously, I can be honest with myself. No one who didn’t absolutely have to read that should. But, it’s possible, that after writing that 321 pages  . . . and a few more pages in the form of journal articles and reports, and spending 11 years actually doing science with girls, that I *might* have some things to say that people *might* find interesting.

Welcome to the Chicks Dig Science Blog, aka “The SLOG” or the place where Brandy rants about all things girls and science-y. 

 So, what is this blog about and who is it for? Excellent question. This is a blog for anyone interested in girls and gender diversity in science, informal science outreach, and/or motivational theories as they apply to science education. You know. Girls. Science. Motivation. YAY! So basically, parents, educators, and scientists interested in doing outreach, this is a blog for you. Also anyone who enjoys gratuitous snarky footnotes and deep 80s & 90s nerd references.

 This blog with also be featuring original art from actual girl scientists with whom I have worked over the years.

 Future posts will include practical tips for engaging girls (really anyone) with science, crash courses in motivational theories and how they apply to effective science experiences, interesting results from real research with real girls, and round ups of current issues in gender disparities in STEM. Posts will be presented in my native smart-alec voice, while including legitimate research and informed, responsible commentary. 

So stay tuned each Thursday for a new snippet of snark and substance in the world of girls and science.


 [1] and minorities and people with disabilities

 [2] For an epically profane breakdown of how this feels see this excellent essay by Mark Manson.

 [3] For the record, only 253 pages of that were actually about gender and STEM. The rest were title pages, and references, and appendices . . . about gender and STEM. GAH! Look. There were a LOT OF CHARTS AND TABLES. It’s not that long, really.

This Blog is Wrong

This is a blog about science and girls and girls & science. It’s about how to welcome girls into the world of science and foster an enduring love for exploring the natural world. It is a blog for parents and teachers and scientists and people who care about girls. This blog is wrong. 

 Image credit: Pearl Kim

Image credit: Pearl Kim

In this blog you will learn a lot of things about girls and science. You will learn that I run a program for middle school aged girls. You will learn that this program is named SPICE. You will learn that SPICE is designed to foster affinities for science [1] and science education. You will learn about research I have conducted on SPICE. This research quantifies programs impacts and seeks to identify effective techniques for motivating girls to pursue science education and careers. This blog, this program, this research is wrong.

The blog is not wrong because what you just read sounds pretty boring. What all the mumbling about “affinities” and “motivation” really means is that I spend my summers encouraging girls to light things on fire, solve murder mysteries [2], and build pinball machines. Not boring at all. I also watch girls light things on fire. I ask them how they feel about lighting things on fire. I write papers about how girls feel about lighting things on fire.

 SPICE Camper Demonstrating a Butane Bubble Fire (2015). Image Credit: A. Evensen

SPICE Camper Demonstrating a Butane Bubble Fire (2015). Image Credit: A. Evensen

Big surprise, they love it! Who doesn’t like lighting things on fire [3]?

This, is wrong.

No, I don’t mean I feel bad about running a program just for girls. I don’t. Not. At. All.

Nor do I regret encouraging them to light things on fire. . . . yet.

The reason I don’t feel bad about running a girls only program (or the fire) and the reason that this blog, and my research, and my program are wrong are exactly the same reason. 

There is no secret to getting girls to like science. Seriously. Girls already like science (as do boys and children everywhere). Until they don’t. There’s a big fat ol’ body of research showing that elementary school girls really like science and are confident in their science abilities. Until they’re not. 

Gendered ideas about math and science emerge at shockingly young ages, but don’t really start to bear nasty fruit until middle school. Early adolescence is the time when kids start running away from science like a plague. Girls run particularly fast. Interest and confidence in science ability begins a steady and uninterrupted dive in middle school. There is a lot of research (including my own) on why this happens and this blog will explore this research in future articles, but not right now. Right now I’m explaining why this blog is wrong. Remember this is a blog about getting girls motivated to do science. Something they are pretty much hard wired to enjoy from a very early age. So why the gender STEM gap?

Gendered achievement gaps in math and science have all but disappeared, but gaps in pursuit of science education and careers have not. The natural sciences remain heavily gendered and the gaps grow wider the higher up the science education and careers ladder you look.

Researchers, educators, and parents tend to talk about these gaps in terms of demographics. Numerous reports on women, minorities and persons with disabilities in STEM are produced each year by government agencies, professional organizations, and educational groups. 

This is wrong.

No, I don’t mean the data is wrong. The numbers are consistent and verifiable. 

What is wrong is the entire way the discussion is framed. There isn’t a problem with women or girls in science. The problem is with the culture of science. The problem is with the culture in general. The problem is with social messages that constantly tell girls (and most people who are not white males) that science is not the right place for them.

There are messages that say you must be effortlessly brilliant to be a scientist. 

This is wrong. Science takes creativity, and persistence, and hard work to master. Just like anything else worth mastering.

There are messages that say scientists are highly competitive and work in isolation on abstract projects that have no relation to real lives.

This is wrong. In practice, science is highly collaborative and generally only gets funded if it has potential to be useful.

There are messages that tell girls that they aren’t as naturally talented at science as boys.

This is wrong. Gender and sex-based differences in math and science ability have been thoroughly debunked.

There are messages that tell girls and women they will not be welcome in the world of science

This is wrong . . . but also true.

Female scientists receive less recognition for their accomplishments, have trouble finding peers and mentors they relate to, and have to struggle to walk the impossible line between gendered behavior expectations and science culture. The social construction of what it means to be a scientist and the cultural construction of acceptable ways to be a woman are directly at odds. The iconic Draw a Scientist Test continues to produce the same results today, even after decades of gains in girls math and science achievement. When asked to draw a picture of a scientist children (and adults) produce remarkably consistent images – fuzzy haired, maniacal, white men with beakers full of chemicals. 

 Image Credit: B. Todd (2018)

Image Credit: B. Todd (2018)

Not exactly a relatable role model for aspiring young scientists, particularly girls trying to navigate what it means to be feminine in a culture that disproportionately values maleness and whiteness [4].

Imagine you are a 13 year old girl, deciding how to fill your one elective class spot for the term. You love science. You could take the new robotics class your school is offering. It sounds fun. Who wouldn’t want to build robots? But you know that you will be one of, if not the only girl in the class. You know from past experience that you are less likely to be called on by the teacher, less likely to be acknowledge for your accomplishments. Your ideas will probably be ignored by male group members who will then later absently propose the same thing and take credit for it. You know you will be giving up the opportunity to take a class with plenty of other girls, where you’ll be recognized and welcomed. You will be missing out on sharing something else fun with your friends. 

What is the rational decision? Take a class that’s likely to frustrate and alienate you or turn your attentions to something rewarding, something that aligns with you identity and need for belonging? 

Digging into the sources of gender (and other) disparities in STEM disciplines, reveals that that the entire ecosystem is polluted and the only things that could reasonably be considered “right” are the women and girls who opt out of science. 

Given the circumstances, girls and women are making healthy decisions in staying away from STEM education and careers. Of course, we also know, that they are passing on careers with higher income and greater prestige than those typically more welcoming to women. Not only that, but society is missing out on the creativity and innovation that comes with a diverse workforce, particularly in the STEM fields, where the economic and quality of life benefits for all have been clearly identified.

Why do we need science summer camps and after school programs for girls? It’s not because there is anything wrong with girls. Girls are fine. Girls are great. What is missing is the messaging and the opportunity that boys receive every day. The sense of belonging in science, recognition, access to relatable peers, and the implicit assumption of competence that are bestowed on (mostly white) boys is an incredible motivational leg up. 

I’ve heard many parents lament that they cannot find a program like ours for their sons. For the sake of diplomacy I refrain from shouting, “Every day is SPICE camp for your son!” What I do say is, “I think my (white) son has lots of opportunities to connect with science, even without SPICE camp [5].” 

What we really need are camps for everyone who is not underrepresented in STEM. We need camps for parents, and teachers, and little white boys, and people who make movies and TV shows, and talking head pundits to teach them how to include everyone in sharing and loving science. But I don’t have the budget or the patience for that. So I’ve got a program for girls and a blog. They are wrong. But they are what we have got.

And fire. We need more fire. 


[1] I use science and STEM (science technology engineering and mathematics) interchangeably in this post. 

[2] The murders are fake. The fire is real [6].

[3] OK, some people have a very healthy and reasonable fear of fire. My apologies for being glib if you are one of those people.

[4] Wow that’s a really diplomatic way of saying we live in a white-male-supremacist patriarchy. I really need to work on the heteronormative aspect as well. I’m getting there! This blog will definitely address intersectionality. Eventually! 

[5] Ha-ha! Successful deployment of my over privileged male yuppy larvae offspring to combat the patriarchy! 

[6] No girls have been burned in the course of making this blog, but I may have lost a few arm hairs [7].

[7] Footnote within a footnote. I’m SO META!

What is this SPICE thing you keep talking about?

This is a blog about girls and science and what can be done to better support girls in science. Posts will vary between informational, practical, and theoretical discussions. Hopefully these posts will all be at least somewhat entertaining and more than somewhat useful/insightful. In a lot of posts I have/will reference the SPICE program. So it seemed worthwhile to spend a little time providing some context for what I’m talking about. 

What does SPICE stand for? Well, honestly, we came up with the acronym [1] and made words to fit . . . so nothing? But if you want to be technical it’s the Science Program to Inspire Creativity and Enthusiasm. Which is a huge mouthful, so just call it SPICE.

So what is SPICE? At its core, SPICE is a university-based program that provides science summer camps for middle-aged girls. This is nothing ground breaking. Lots of other higher ed institutions, professional organizations, and not profits provide STEM outreach targeted at underrepresented groups. These types of interventions run the gamut, but typically, they focus on a particular discipline and try to 1) increase awareness of this discipline as an area of potential study and careers, and 2) introduce participants knowledge in the discipline area. Some of the programs provide multiple points of contact with participants, but most are fairly off and on. 

Here’s where SPICE is different. 

Structurally, SPICE is fairly unique among STEM outreach programs. SPICE offers three cohort based thematic camps. What this means functionally, is that girls join the program the summer following 5th grade to attend the Discovery camp. They return the next summer for the Forensic Investigating Camp. The final summer is Maker Camp. So the program remains in contact with girls for a three year period. Many graduates return to volunteer with the program as Junior Minions [2]. Descriptions of the general content of each camp can be found below.

The biggest difference between SPICE and other programs, however, is not the content but what goes on “under the hood.” SPICE is a generalist program, curriculum shifts over time with the interests of campers, instructors, and the director [3]. What remains the same, year to year, is the instructor training and program guidelines. As I’ve noted in other posts, achievement is not the reason girls and women are not persisting in STEM. The big causes are rooted in lack of access to STEM experiences that develop the psychosocial building blocks for STEM motivation: identity, interest, self-efficacy, expectancy value, attitudes, and mindsets.  SPICE is designed to fill that gap by providing girls hands on STEM activities presented in a fashion that supports motivational development. 

Instructors are introduced to basic motivational theories and provided guidance on how to practically implement science in a way that fosters identity formation, self-efficacy, and interests. The SPICE model has been refined over the course of a decade and provides instructors with concrete rules for how to provide high quality science experiences. Below, you can see a logic model of the program design.

Logic Model2.jpg

 Crazy, I know, but researchers, particularly program evaluators, LOVE logic models. They go Gaga for logic models. In the table below, you can see actual information provided to instructors on how to lead science activities to maximize motivation. Note these are concrete, observable, measurable actions. 

3_Table 1 SPICE Model.png

Which brings us to the next point. Most STEM outreach is pretty haphazard. For example:

  • Professor Smith invites the children in his own kids classroom to come for a lab tour. 

  • Young faculty trying to beef up their resumes and have something to write in the “broader impacts” sections of their research proposals host school day off workshops. 

  • Parents and scout leaders invite students from the local student American Chemical Society group to present a workshop to their troop. 

 The types and quantities of these activities vary greatly, but they tend to have one thing in common. No one actually evaluates them. Typically, the only programs that receive any evaluation attention are those with large program grants with accountability to a sponsor (which is to say, very few). Many of the better funded programs are targeted to high school school students and have large college readiness components. It’s these college prep aspects that are often the focus of the research. Measures of motivational impact tend to be limited to a few pre post questions about the participants interest in a career in the particular discipline of focus.

 The really frustrating thing about all of this is that the vast majority of outreach, which accounts for countless hours and resources go largely, if not completely unexamined. Most fizzle after a few years, or even a few sessions [4].

Our goal with the SPICE program has been to make something enduring, effective, and measurable. The program has been in operation since 2008. Since 2013 [5], the I've been measuring campers motivation for science using, surveys, observations, focus group interviews, and in depth individual interviews. This research has focused primarily on:

  • Collecting and analyzing evidence of how that program is (or isn’t) working to support girls in building identities as future scientists.

  •  Learning from girls how they need to be supported in science.

What I find, generally, is a pretty profound gap in what girls think of as “real” science and the science they are learning in school. I’ve also found that SPICE does have a measurable impact on girls motivational profile (I call it affinity) for science. 

Let me clarify, I do research on girls motivation for science, but I don’t think how girls form science identities and interests is any different than that of boys. In fact, I’ve spent a good deal of time compiling evidence that the notion of a “girls” way of doing science is bunk. Girls have lots of different ways of doing and relating to science (I’ll get into this more in later posts). I’d bet dollars to donuts, that the types of science identities I’ve identified in girls are also present in boys. The part where gender becomes relevant is how these nascent science identities play out differently socially between boys and girls.

There are a lot of moving parts that go into a program like SPICE and I’ll cover some of these in more detail in later posts. For now, I’ll summarize the program with the following bullet points

  • SPICE practices are based in motivational theories that have been operationalized into clear guidance for how to foster a love of science in participants

  • SPICE is committed to researching and evaluating program impacts

  • SPICE targets middle school aged girls, as early adolescence is a key time in motivational (particularly identity) development

Camp Descriptions

SPICE consists of three signature camps which run in two session in each summer.

Discovery Camp(rising 6th and 7th graders)

Campers spend two weeks running (sometimes literally) from one activity to the next doing all sorts of crazy, fun, hands on lessons . . . and amassing sweet-sweet data. Campers are given their own lab notebook to decorate and doodle, and document. The camp culminates in a final Amazing Science Race where the girls have to use what they’ve learned through their time at SPICE to complete challenges and win fuzzy prizes. They think they’re just having fun, but really, their learning good experimental skills and data collection techniques.

Forensic Investigation Camp(rising 7th and 8th graders)

If Discovery Camp is about data collection, Forensic Investigation Camp is about data analysis. Campers learn a host of forensic investigation techniques from identifying mystery substances, to interrogating witnesses, to processing archeological sites. They learn not just how to carry out tests, but how to assemble data from multiple sources to put together a compelling, fact-bases story of what happened before they arrive on the scene.

Maker Camp (rising 8th & 9th graders)

Formerly Pinball Camp, Maker camp introduces fundamental principles of design, engineering, and logic using programmable Arduino microcontrollers. Girls carry out a number of projects that employ creativity, scientific design, and computer code to achieve a goal. Campers are introduced to circuits and learn how to use power sources, resistors, transistors, diodes, motors, servos, and LEDs to create games and objects that delight. Particular emphasis is placed on making computer science and engineering, two areas in which girls and women are the most underrepresented, accessible and relatable to campers lived experiences.


[1] We tried a whole bunch of other acronyms out in a truly mind bending series of emails that shall forever remain buried three folders deep on an old hard drive. Suffice it to say, I’m really glad our name is SPICE not SPANK, SPUNKY, SPINK, or SPAM.

[2] I want it to be known that I used the term “minion” to describe my henchpersons long before Despicable Me.

[3] This is based on a vast store of anecdotal evidence. The fun thing about documenting how many outreach efforts fizzle is that part of the reason they fizzle is lack of documentation. So you have to take my word for this one [4].

[4] Tautology! Gotta love it!  

[5] There small attempts to evaluate the program from the very start, but they consisted mostly of “customer satisfaction” style questionnaires that were used to evaluate which activities campers liked. It wasn’t until 2013 that we got serious about the research. 

Motivation: It’s not what you think

Motivation is a huge industry in America [1]. Companies pay thousands of dollars for speakers, trainings, and motivational materials for their employees. There are countless apps and gadgets designed to help people accomplish their goals. The “Self-Help” section of any book store is stacked with volume after volume of books designed to unlock your inner potential. Some of these products are based in actual nuanced research, most combine snippets of useful information packaged in with a lot of less scientific advice, and some are just downright garbage.

Built into these products is the notion that all you need to succeed is to find just that one hack or gadget to motivate you. Nothing exemplifies this more to me than the motivational poster. We’ve all seen them. Big framed posters with high quality stock photos and short pithy text. 

It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.

There is no “I” in “Team.”

Dream [2]

They adorn the walls of offices and waiting rooms. They’re so ubiquitous that they’ve spawned an entire counter line of products that play off the trope so well that sometimes it’s hard to parse the sincere from the satirical.

I really enjoy Demotivators, those great spoofs of the motivational poster. They sneak up on you because they look exactly like regular motivational posters. Photos of sweeping vistas, one word concepts in enormous fonts, with a short sentence at the bottom. It’s typically the text at the bottom that lands the punch. My favorite, hands down goes like this:

“Motivation: If a pretty poster and a cute saying are all it takes to motivate you, you probably have a very easy job. The kind robots will be doing soon.” [3]

Here’s the thing about motivation. It’s not really about individuals, or at least not just about individuals. It’s about an entire ecosystem of interaction, experience, and feedback. The notion that individuals can turn their lives around if they just dig deep and find the right motivation is, from a psychosocial standpoint, laughably naïve. Also, it’s beside the point. It’s an old saw that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, but it’s really true. Societies aren’t just the total of the individuals in them. Societies have their own lives, characters, and far reaching impacts. So many of the problems we experience (opioid epidemic, bias motivated violent attacks, pervasive sexual harassment) are social problems. Addressing systemic social problems at the individual level simply isn’t effective or appropriate. That is to say, just telling girls they should do more science is not going to yield any gains in closing the gender STEM gap.

 Image Credit: B. Todd

Image Credit: B. Todd

Motivation is a huge area of study pursued by researchers in education, psychology, sociology, economics, and business, to name a few. It contains many, many subfields that compliment one another. Some researchers focus solely on interest development while others look at curiosity. Yes, those are different things, and let me tell you, both groups have OPINIONS about the difference between the two. Within the area of interest formation one researcher may be looking at brain MRIs while another is administering short surveys to hundreds of students, and a third spends months or even years interviewing model train enthusiasts. What I’m trying to say is that motivation is a big complex field that can’t be pinned down to any one simple hack. I also think it’s safe to say that most of us, aren’t focused on individuals. We use them as our subjects, but we’re not just looking at the actions and thoughts of individuals. We’re looking at social context that produces these actions and thoughts. We’re looking for how social contexts produce (or inhibit) motivation and how they shape the nature of motivation. Let’s take a case of one and look at it.

Like many, many people, I am frequently in a state of trying to lose weight and be healthier in my diet and exercise. I’ve had varying success at this. The healthiest time of my entire life was between 2011-2014. I lost about 30 pounds, took up running, and participated in several triathlons. Let me be very clear, I was that kid in elementary school who HATED gym class. I couldn’t run without having to stop and walk every 30 seconds and could be reduced to tears over the prospect of being asked to climb a rope. Suddenly in my mid 30s I turned into work out nerd. Then between 2014-2017 I gained back all the weight (plus more), got much spottier about my workouts, ate very poorly, and didn’t participate in any formal organized fitness events like fun runs or triathlons. 

So what was the difference between these two three year periods? I was the same person [3] with the same information and abilities during both of these times. What was different was my ecosystem. In the first period I worked in the same office with my best friend and we went to the gym together nearly every day at lunch. She taught me how to run without collapsing into a wheezing ball and I showed up in her office very day with my gym bag excited to spend time with my friend complaining about whatever stupid thing was annoying me. We took swim lessons and learned how to perform a proper crawl stroke and did our first sprint triathlon together. We encouraged and challenged each other and it was fun. 

Then my friend graduated and got a better job somewhere else. It was harder to get together and at the same time my workload skyrocketed. Without someone to be accountable to it was easier to prioritize work over fitness. Stress made eating sugary foods a lot more attractive, and slowly my health routine degraded into an unhealthy one.

And that’s it. I didn’t actually change anything important in my life during these two times. I still did all the same activates with my family and pursued the same hobbies during both time frames, but in one I had a work context that supported fitness and in the other I didn’t. Context is everything. 

I’m not saying that people can’t make meaningful changes in their lives, of course they can, but the answer isn’t “willpower” or “wanting it.” It’s about creating the social circumstances that support success and reinforce desired behaviors. When we start looking at big problems like underrepresentation in STEM, changing context becomes a lot more challenging than finding a running buddy (which can be surprisingly challenging). Providing opportunity and access to underrepresented groups or yes, even helping people lose weight, are social issues that need to be addressed in social contexts. Taking a nuanced view of motivation as an ecosystem in which the individual is just one component doesn’t really sell books, though [4]. 

How can parents who want to support their girls in science change the social context? Can they change the social context? How much power do girls and parents have to create a context that sets them up for STEM success? I have thoughts on this ;-) But for now, I think the most important take away message from this rambling rant is not to beat yourself up for failing to DO ALL THE THINGS. It’s pretty hard to just make yourself do stuff that you don’t normally do. It’s REALLY hard to make yourself feel like the kind of person who does that stuff, which is a pretty important part of actually doing stuff. And if you want the girls in your life to engage more with science, well, engage in science with them! Help create a context that supports doing science. If you want to get really meta, create a context that supports you in creating a context that supports science engagement. . . easy, right? Yeah, no. But I’ll talk about that in future posts.


[1] According to this Market Research Blog Americans spend around $10 billion a year on “Personal Development.”

[2] Well, yeah. I mean, you’ve gotta sleep, so sure. Dream. Also. Respirate. Perspirate. Maybe even Perpetrate (for a good cause). But don’t Suffocate. That would be bad.


[4] Ignoring existential questions as to the ephemeral nature of person hood and identity.

[5] Says the lady who is writing a book about engaging girls with science! 

It’s Just a Theory Right? What Motivational Theories Have to Offer for Closing the Gender STEM gap

As an academic researcher one of the things I do is go to conferences and talk about my research. As a mixed methods researcher sometimes I’m presenting big fat tables full of numbers. Coefficients, effect sizes, p-values, fit indices, all that jazz. Other times I share the words of girls I’ve interviewed and stitch together their different narratives to present interesting pictures of how they construct ideas about science, scientists, and their place in the world of science. Sometimes I do both in the same presentation. This makes for a lot of variety in the way I share my work. But every time I present, regardless of the methods or the specifics I’m discussing on that particular day, the same thing happens. 

After my talk, a fresh faced young teacher (or researcher) will come up, thank me for my talk, tell me my program sounds amazing, and then ask THE QUESTION. I really hate THE QUESTION. “So,” they say, “what curriculum do you use at SPICE camp?” Then I run screaming from the room, gnashing my teeth, and rending my nice suit jacket. 

OK, I don’t really do that. Nor do I shout, “You clearly weren’t LISTENING!”  

Now you are wondering, what kind of educator is this woman? Isn’t the goal of teaching for people to learn things? Don’t you need curriculum [1] to learn things? Aren’t you teaching science?

Well yes, of course we have curriculum. If I were to describe it I think our curriculum is like disco lighting. Shiny, eclectic, and constantly shifting. Don’t get distracted by the moving shiny lights! You are here to DANCE! 

 Image Credit: B. Todd

Image Credit: B. Todd

Many outreach programs are sponsored by professional societies or grants that have a learning outcome agenda. If the people footing the bill are the international society of women in engineering, then you better bet they want the participants to be learning about engineering, not plant biology. Curriculum is going to be the main focus of such a program. Which is great, but it’s only address a small slice of the problem. We don’t just have a problem with women in engineering, or computer science, or physics (though these are the most problematic areas with regards to women in STEM [1] ), we’ve got a blanket problem with women not choosing STEM at all.

Remember, gender disparities in STEM are not the result of ability or achievement differentials. They are the result of choices made by humans. Girls are learning the same curriculum as boys, but they aren’t choosing STEM, and when they do, they are disproportionately choosing to leave STEM. 

What makes the SPICE approach to science outreach different is the emphasis on implementation. The content is nowhere near as important as HOW it is delivered [2]. Many schools have adopted high quality science curriculum and spent a lot of time and money training teachers to use that curriculum. States have invested millions of dollars in curriculum and assessments. We now have Next Generation Science Standards, which on balance, I think are pretty good. And yet. Girls are still opting out of science. We still have a massive gender gap in STEM and no fancy curriculum will fix that. Remember, girls achieve in science just fine. What they don’t do is CHOOSE science.

Why don’t they choose science? Because science isn’t choosing them.

This is why I don’t like THE QUESTION. The question implies that if we just get the perfect curriculum suddenly all the doors will open up and we will have fixed this “girl problem” in STEM. As I’ve stated before in this blog. We don’t have a “girl problem” we have a STEM culture problem. 

Curriculum is incredibly important in how students learn, but it won’t fix the “soft” elements of inducting students into the culture and identity of STEM practitioner. When social messages, stereotypes, and classroom dynamics all signal STEM as the domain of a certain type of white (or Asian) male, all the good curriculum in the world will not make it more attractive to women. There is a reason women out number men in nursing nine to one. It’s not because nursing schools do a better job of teaching medicine to women than men, it’s because men do not see themselves as nurses. This is despite the fact that nursing can be a physically demanding job requiring an authoritative demeanor and high level of technical expertise, all characteristics typically associated with masculine professions. But that’s not how nursing is thought of in our culture. Nursing evokes images of caring and nurturing more traditionally associated with the feminine. Similarly, girls do not see themselves in most STEM careers which are typified as isolated, requiring exceptional intelligence, and lacking in connections to the human experience.

Research shows that, at all levels, girls have fewer encounters with science, have fewer hands on science opportunities, and are less likely to be recognized for scientific accomplishments. If we want girls to view science careers as “thinkable” we have to provide the same motivational reinforcements to them that boys receive as a matter of course. When parents ask me about how they can find experiences like the SPICE program for their sons I want to shout, “The whole world is SPICE for boys!”

This is where having a good understanding of motivational theory comes in. If we know what is missing from girls STEM experiences then what can we do to fill in that gap? What are the concrete actions that teaches and parents and girls can take to build enduring interest in STEM education and careers? This blog will go into these topics individually in more detail over the next few months, but for now, here is the shortlist of motivational theories I use in my work and research and some quick notes about the implications of each.


Based in the work of Albert Bandura, whose Bobo Doll experiment is both entertaining and terrifying to parents everywhere, Self-Efficacy, stated simply is an individuals’ belief in her ability to successfully complete a task. Note the emphasis on belief in this definition. Competence is often associate with self-efficacy, but not always, and the relationship goes both ways, building competence can build self-efficacy and building self-efficacy has been shown to contribute to increased competence. Self-efficacy development is a complicated process that involved interplay between the individual, mentors and peers, and the environment. Suffice it to say, our culture and educational system falls short of supporting girls STEM self-efficacy in many ways.


Psychologist Erik Erikson developed a theory of psychosocial development that identified 8 stages of identity development spanning from infancy to death. Each of these stages is imagined as a conflict that must be successfully resolved within the individual. One key stage that researchers, parents, and teachers or interested in is Identity vs. Role confusion. This is the stage that overlaps with adolescence and relates to a lot of identity work that starts up around the middle school years. Successful identity integration requires a series of cyclical processes that involve trying on new identities, receiving feedback about the suitability of identities, and shifting identity expressions.

This process is most visible in teens who heavily associate identity with alignment to cultural icons like musicians, artists, and actors. Dress becomes an important means of expressing identity for this age group and they are particularly alert for criticism and messages disconfirming belonging to a particular group or identity. Navigating complex, ever looming gender identities is a major component of this phase and the need to find an appropriate and meaningful gender expression can often run contrary to the expressions of a STEM identity. Girls who feel they must choose between their gender and interest in STEM will feel enormous pressure to conform to gendered expectations.

Interest Formation

Interest development is another area necessary for adopting a STEM orientation to the world. That is, people generally need to be interested in something to spend much time working toward it. In my work and research, I use the Four Phase model of Interest development delineated by Hidi and Renninger. This model identifies ways in which people engage in their interest and how interest can be scaffolded to develop from simply noticing and passively observing a subject of interest to becoming an expert who is able to pose novel questions and sustain their interest through self-driving inquiry and engagement. 

Many people, and especially children, have a situational interest in science (everyone likes a good science demonstration with fire or big chemical reactions). The key to building enduring interest is supporting students in developing a deeper, self-sustaining, personal interest in STEM topics. 


Carol Dweck and colleagues noticed some interesting anomalies in their research with children. First, they found that some students relished challenges that were likely to result in failure, while others avoided them at all costs. They also noticed that girls who were otherwise quite willing to take risks, were more likely to adopt the avoidant approach to math and science challenges. From this research Dweck developed the theory of mindsets. In a nutshell, some people view their intelligence in a particular domain as fixed, not capable of changing. For these individuals, failure is a signal of lower intelligence, and something to be avoided, particularly by those who generally thing of themselves a bright. Other individuals view their intelligence as malleable and capable of change with practice, and yes, the occasional failure. These individuals have a growth mindset, and relish challenge as an opportunity to learn and . . . well, grow.

The crazy things about mindsets is that life, self-efficacy, they can be very specific.  One individual can have a patchwork of growth and fixed mindsets. Many girls, who are identified as gifted and are willing to take risks in say, English class, may avoid similar behavior in a math setting, where the cultur stereotypes identity the domain as the realm of men and something that requires an innate talent that some people simply do not have.

Dweck and her colleagues have identified a host of behaviors and approaches to teaching that can help foster a growth mindset and an equally large list of practices that undermine girls in math and science.


[1] STEM = Science Technology Engineering Mathematics

[2] Am I the only one who thinks the word curriculum is just a pretentious way of saying, “stuff you learn?” Yeah, I probably am.

 [3] Yes, of course the content is important! Trust me, I’m a total hard-ass, demanding that the content be legitimate science with clearly delineated facts, concepts, and learning outcomes. I just don’t particularly care what facts/concepts/learning outcomes they are! [4]

 [4] Of course I care what they are. But only a little.

What is science affinity?

A huge part of raising baby academics involves pounding and shaping them into tiny little boxes [1]. We call this process “grad school” and it involves a lot of being told just how wrong and misguided every idea you ever had was, is, and will continue to be. 

A semi-apt metaphor would goes as follows:

You arrive at a feast. A near infinite assortment of foods is displayed before you, each more appetizing than the last. Many kindly mentor-like figures stand around you smiling. They lead you around the table extolling the virtues of each food, but whenever you reach for an item, they begin shouting and waiving their arms madly. 


And then they begin ferociously detailing to you all the things about your chosen snack that totally suck, while fervently encouraging you to just go ahead and choose something already!

 Peas don’t care about affinities. They just like hanging out in pods together.  Image credit: B. Todd

Peas don’t care about affinities. They just like hanging out in pods together.

Image credit: B. Todd

Now, to be fair, a most individuals new to research have some pretty unrealistic ideas about what they can accomplish in a finite amount of time with limited resources and have an even vaguer understanding of what it is they actually want to do (beyond, “Change the World!”). So, a lot of the work mentors do is trying to get students to narrow down their ideas into something coherent and doable.

What does this have to do with science affinity? Let me tell you!

As a not-so-long-ago baby academic myself, I was faced with a conundrum. As a baby academics go, I had a leg up on many of my peers. I knew exactly which snack I wanted (maple donut, thank you), what the implications of that snack were (Hello, newer, roomier jeans [2]), and where I could find my snack. In fact, I’d been working on my project already before starting my PhD program. I wanted to investigate the impacts of the SPICE program on girls science identities. I was just missing one thing, a way to measure those impacts. Here’s the thing, though, academics measure things and academics create things-that-measure-things[3]. But baby academics really need to pick just one. So you can either 

Measure things and talk about what you measured 


Create a thing-that-measures-things and talk about how that thing you made that measures things works.

It’s pretty challenging to do both. You have to pick.

I still don’t get what this has to do with science affinity?

I’m getting there! I’m getting there!

So, I was really much more interested in measuring identity in SPICE girls than I was in creating a new fangled instrument to measure identity [4]. So what do you do if you want to measure something and you don’t have time to reinvent the ruler? Well, you do what everyone in my family does, raid mom’s tool box [5]. In this case, moms tool box is stuff made by other researchers. Fortunately, other researchers actually like it when you take their tools, unlike moms, who would like not to have all there stuff lost under a mountain of legos. 

 Otters together. Cuteness squared.  Image credit: B. Todd

Otters together. Cuteness squared.

Image credit: B. Todd

I knew I wanted to measure girls science identities. I knew I needed to do it with survey questions, and I knew that 11 year old girls have about a 2 page/30 question tolerance for filling out surveys. That’s under the BEST circumstances. So I went looking for what other researchers had done before. Nice juicy, validated instruments were what I needed. After trawling the depths of Google Scholar I found nine scale measures that seemed to mostly fit the bill. What I didn’t find, was a simple measure of science identity. Go figure! Identity might be something complex and not easily measured in a handful of ordinal scale questions [6].

So, I cobbled together parts of the nine scale measures I’d found and I snuck in a four question scale measure of identity I’d made up for a pilot study a year earlier (hello tiny eclair, I filched from the infinite snack table while my advisor wasn’t looking) and thus was born . . . well, a three page survey that was really boring.

BUT! I tested it with SPICE kids, and I ran some factor analyses [7] and thus a slightly less boring two page survey that made some sort of thematic sense emerged.

 One snail, two snail. Brown snail, slime snail.  Image credit: B. Todd

One snail, two snail. Brown snail, slime snail.

Image credit: B. Todd

This two page survey contained four clusters of questions. These clusters measured science identity (or something like science identity), expectancy value for science, science self-efficacy, and attitudes toward science. Now, constantly typing out those four things got rather boring for me so I needed to come up with a name that encapsulated the whole suite of measures . . . and voilà, science affinity was born.

Fortunately, though my process for getting to affinity was rather haphazard, it turns out that these four items actually share something in common. They all fall under the heading of motivational research, and that’s what I do. I measure motivation for science using an amalgam of motivational theories that I call science affinity.

So when I use the term science affinity in this blog what I mean is:

  • Do they think science is cool?

  • Do they think science is valuable?

  • Do they think they’re good at science?

  • Do they think of themselves as scientists?

And that’s about it. Science affinity. The homunculus maple bar-éclair that is my snack of choice. 

Of course, I wasn’t really satisfied with one mashed up snack, but I’ll talk about my qualitative research in other posts. Hello, Pumpkin pie-maple bar-éclair.


[1] I have many thoughts about this. 

[2] Only half joking. Grad school really can pack on the pounds. I went from a mean lean triathlon running machine to a strange goblin creature hiding in a corner closet cramming maples bars in to my face and rocking back and forth singing the theme song to Sponge Bob Squarepants.

[3] We call them instruments. They generally do not produce sound.

[4] I still totally want to do that and if you happen to know 400-600 girls ages 11-14 who don’t mind taking a bunch of surveys please call me.

[5] All the pink labeling tape in the world won’t keep my husband and son from 5-fingering my measuring tape and nice rubber handled pliers. GAH!

[6] What’s an ordinal scale question, you ask? Actually, you already know. You just don’t know that you know. It’s what is famously called an “unknown, known.” Which is to say, they’re those questions people call you on the phone to ask. “If you were to rate your interest in having a full service toe waxing station at your work would you say you are: very disinterested, disinterested, neither interested nor disinterested, interested, or very interested?” 

[7] That’s a mathematical way of finding out which of the items on your survey are the “cool kids” who want to hang out together. And which are the sad kids, who have to eat lunch alone.

A list of all the survey instruments I filched from other researchers.

Cause it’s only stealing if you don’t give credit!

Adams, W. K., Perkins, K. K., Podolefsky, N. S., Dubson, M., Finkelstein, N. D., & Wieman, C. E. (2006). New instrument for measuring student beliefs about physics and learning physics: The Colorado learning attitudes about science survey. Physical Review Special Topics-Physics Education Research, 2(1).

Else-Quest, N. M., Mineo, C. C., & Higgins, A. (2013). Math and science attitudes and achievement at the intersection of gender and ethnicity. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 37(3), 293-309.

Germann, P. J. (1988). Development of the attitude toward science in school assessment and its use to investigate the relationship between science achievement and attitude toward science in school. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 25(8), 689-703.