For Girls in STEM Learning, Our Goal Is Math That Is Memorable, Engaging + Fun

Girls who are not competent in math through at least basic college-level coursework reduce their career options in the United States, it is estimated, by 75 percent. — source: Forbes Woman, fall 2009

Girls in STEM Learning at Pretty Brainy

Pictured: Annalea & Autumn. Our 2014 winter and spring workshops in the STEM of Fashion Design place math problem-solving at the heart of learning. Register here.

The girls with whom I work are a diverse bunch. They range in age from 10 to 15. Some are at the top of their class at the top school in their district. Others barely make the grade. Each one has shown that she is intelligent and does her best work once she is given the permission and environment to do so.

They are Latina and mixed race, White and African-American, Chinese- and Korean-American and American Indian. I work with the daughters of the community’s poorest members, who attend the roughest schools, on the northwest end of town. I work with the daughters of families who are among the community’s wealthiest, whose schools stand geographically opposite to the poorest, on the southeast side of town.

It is my goal to expand how they all see and experience science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, so they keep studying these disciplines throughout high school and into at least basic college-level work. Whether or not a girl pursues a career in a STEM discipline, I would like her to be able to make an informed decision about her life and not choose the career path of least math.

The greatest influence on a girl’s sense of her competence in math and science are her parents and teachers, says Professor Nadya Fouad of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Fouad’s research has shown that the more a girl thinks she is capable of doing math and science, the more she is interested in the subjects.

The research should be the reading material of every parent of a daughter and every teacher who works with girls.

Here is why. Girls who are not competent in math through at least basic college-level coursework reduce their career options in the United States, it is estimated, by 75 percent. In other words, as Forbes Woman reported in an interview with Carol Bartz, former Yahoo CEO, in fall 2009, three out of four jobs will be off limits to a girl if she is not literate in the basic math needed for 21st century employment.

How We Frame Math Problem-Solving within Fashion Design

“What I learned: Designing is HARD!!! And really fun.” — Mackenzie, 7th grade, Fashionably Mashed Student

My work at Pretty Brainy is about showing students a real-world purpose for STEM and, among STEM studies, to make math problem-solving memorable, engaging and fun. The math at the heart of our program in fashion design, Fashionably Mashed, is about bread-and-butter problem-solving.

The lesson centers on students making the decisions and figuring out the equations for completing a cost sheet for a designer T-shirt. The students are the designers. The T-shirts are their own creations. The decisions a student must make are about the complexity of her design (and the related cost), the color palette of her design (and its cost), the fabric she will source into her design (and how much it will cost), and her projection of consumer demand for her design and how much she will spend and save in that decision, too.

Ultimately a student must compute the margin at which she would sell her design to a retail store and the public. Students find the final numbers shocking and insightful. It prompts many to go back to their cost sheet and begin again with the consumer in mind.

The lesson opens up discussion of how Walmart, for example, can charge so little for a T-shirt, why designers such as Stella McCartney and Ralph Lauren are able to charge $370 for a tee, and the psychology of consumer demand.

For some students in both our half-day and multiweek workshops, the math problem-solving and costing lesson is their favorite part of Fashionably Mashed. For most, the math lesson takes a backseat to the soil science and physics lessons.

But no matter what a girl likes best and least, here is the point:

  • She is learning how to approach problem-solving.
  • She is learning a real-world application for math.
  • She is applying math in relation to science and art and economics and ecology.

My vision is a greater number of girls being STEM literate and knowing how to use math to reach their goals in life.

Would you like your daughter or granddaughter or niece to be among our designers for a day?

Here is how she can take part —

Dates + Details for The STEM of Fashion Design: a Public Workshop for Young People Ages 10-14

This workshop in The STEM of Fashion Design places young people in the shoes of a professional fashion designer in a half-day format. It is hands on and emphasizes the bread-and-butter math and science problem-solving, decision-making and creative thinking of fashion design today. It also includes elements of eco-fashion.

Who: Young people ages 10 to 14.

When: 12 noon to 3:30 p.m. on these dates:
Mon., Jan. 20
Mon., Feb 17
Mon., Apr. 14

Where: Art Lab Fort Collins, 239 Linden St., Fort Collins, CO.

Fee: $59 covers —

  • Half-day of instruction.
  • Blank T-shirt to make your own.
  • Full-length book of Fashionably Mashed, The STEM of Fashion Design.
  • Designer’s Kit with sketchbook, color wheel, pencil set, calculator, fashion croquis, templates + more.

Enrollment is limited to 15, and I am compelled to add that every workshop fills up quickly.


About the Author

Heidi Olinger is an educator, social entrepreneur, and the author of Fashionably Mashed: The STEM of Fashion Design. For teaching excellence, she has been honored by the Boettcher Foundation and others. She is the founder of Pretty Brainy, a nonprofit organization that designs curricula and materials to support educators in exciting students about learning and in preparing them, especially girls, to pursue the broadest of career options. In 2012 InnovatioNews named Pretty Brainy “An educational leader for STEM education.”