Electric Moment between Parents and Girls in STEM May Do More Good than Years of School

Girls in STEM Learning at Pretty Brainy

Future Engineers-in-the-Making: (l to r) Lacy, parent Jenni Miller, Shannen, teaching assistant Consuelo Reyes, and Madeleine. Through a 10-week STEM enrichment program, the students are creating technology and learning Design Thinking. (photo: Christina Spriggs)

In one hour after school on a recent Thursday, my teaching assistants and I engaged nine 4th and 5th grade girls in technology.

The materials and concepts with which the girls worked were new to each: not one had any previous experience.

Yet, by the end of the hour, all but one girl had achieved what she set out to do: design and build an electric circuit from e-textile components, including a slide switch, a coin-cell battery, coin-cell battery holder, 2-ply conductive thread, and an LED.

About 50 minutes into the project the first young designer slid a coin-cell battery into its holder, slid the switch in her circuit to “on,” and saw her LED alight.

E-Textiles: Girls in Tech and Girls in STEM at Pretty Brainy

Blue Light Special: A simple closed circuit created by Rebecca, who is 9 and in the 4th grade.

Then, one after the other, girls began to complete their circuits, ensure positive and negative circuits were not touching, and light their LEDs.

I had given each girl a differently colored LED, and Consuelo and Christina, my TAs, and I were as excited as the girls to see the actual, vibrant color of each light.

The parents’ reaction to their daughters’ work, however, was the greatest surprise. Though unintended, our timing was perfect: parents began to arrive to pick up their children as the session was coming to a close and the girls were seeing the success of having built closed circuits. Jenni Miller, whose daughter, Lacy, had been the first student to finish her circuit, a neat construction with a bright green light, exclaimed, “My engineer-in-the-making!”

Given that women make up just 8 percent of electrical and electronics engineers, the enthusiasm and endorsement of daughter-as-engineer was significant.1

Accurately put, the energy in the room was electric. Everyone was excited. Girls were creating technology, and their parents were publicly gushing over the results: this alone may do more for these girls’ interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) than anything else that will unfold for them in their K-12 education.

As researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee have found, self-confidence instilled in girls by their parents, as well as their teachers, is a stronger factor in holding girls’ interest in STEM learning than their initial interest in a given subject.2 In other words, parent support strengthens a girl’s confidence that she can do STEM and her self-confidence boosts her interest.

And the sole student whose circuit did not function? She identified the single stitch creating a by-pass in her work, talked through how to solve the problem, and took home the materials needed to revise.

Having the patience and character to face a “do-over” also is a success.

Postscript: Championing Girls in Tech

Otter CaresThe STEM learning program I discuss above, Textiles + TechStyles™, is made possible by a generous grant from the OtterCares Foundation.

Learn more about their tremendous support of innovative education for youth at OtterCares.org.

Please also see month-long reporting on women and girls in technology at Tell Me More, a production of National Public Radio to mark Women’s History Month, March 2014.

Heidi Olinger is the founder + CEO of Pretty Brainy. Learn about the Pretty Brainy mission, vision, and more on our About page.


1 Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women in the Labor Force: A Databook. Table 11. http://www.bls.gov/cps/wlf-databook-2012.pdf (accessed Feb. 23, 2014 ).

2 University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. “Tracking The Reasons Many Girls Avoid Science And Math.” ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080905153807.htm (accessed March 29, 2014).