In many ways, 2013 was a banner year for women in STEM fields, with the success of girls’ toys like GoldieBlox, the naming of Marry Barra as General Motors’ next CEO, and calls for women everywhere to “lean in” to traditionally male-dominated fields. However, men continue to significantly outnumber women in STEM jobs, and many point to the importance of K-12 education in changing this reality. Where do museums fit into this picture? Boston’s Museum of Science is one example of an institution that is working to close this gap and inspire students, regardless of gender, to pursue STEM fields. Since 2003, more than 450,000 young visitors, 52% of whom have been female, have participated in the museum’s Design Challenges program, which allows them to “think like engineers” as they formulate solutions to challenges.
The program was launched by the museum’s president and director, Ioannis Miaoulis, as part of the National Center for Technological Literacy®, in order to facilitate “engineering for everyone” in museums and schools. The Design Challenges workshop has become a busy center for exploration, serving nearly 150 visitors per hour. The workshop offers a challenge of the day and familiar materials (like pipe cleaners and foam) that kids can use to build their designs, as well as a piece of custom testing equipment – like a ten-foot long sailboat track. School groups, families, and adults participate in these challenges, working toward multiple goals and aiming to attain the record of the day. Visitors are rewarded for their efforts with activity magnets, which serve as “badges” for each attempted activity.
The museum environment provides a particularly unique space for explorations in engineering approaches and methods. Program Manager Lydia Beall notes that the “informal environment takes away the pressure of ‘getting the right answer’ and provides a safe environment for kids to experiment and take risks.” She adds that this environment is particularly beneficial for girls, as “girls in particular can have a fear of failing, and failure is essential to engineering.” By providing a space in which students are able to design, build, and test their own solutions to given problems, the museum encourages the mindset of engineering and empowers students to seek new solutions.
A particularly interesting element of the program is its inclusion of competition. Beall explains that while “research suggests that girls in formal education settings can be discouraged by competition,” within the context of the museum setting and the introduction of multiple goals, “we see girls participating just as much as boys.” The patterns seen in the workshop suggest that girls tend to self-select with whom they want to compete; in an activity that involves a choice between a fast and slow design, for example, girls often initially opt for the slow design, familiarize themselves with the materials and their own ideas, and then begin to take on the goal of building a fast design – often beating the boys, who then begin to experiment with slow designs. Beall comments that the museum is currently working on research around these patterns and students’ behaviors in the workshop; this research could have significant implications for approaches to STEM education both within and beyond the classroom.
As museums continue to see themselves not as static repositories of objects, but as dynamic centers of idea exchange and learning, programs like the Design Challenges workshop present exciting opportunities. As Beall notes, the program can have lifelong benefits for participants, who learn that engineers “solve problems and design and create almost everything we use in our daily lives.” This holistic presentation of engineering and design, which takes place within an environment that encourages experimentation and allows for both collaboration and competition, can open new career paths and sources of confidence for both boys and girls. Particularly given the increasing prominence of informal education in museums, programs that take a thoughtful approach to learning styles and student confidence while inviting experimentation offer useful models of opening the museum up to continuing invention and inspiration. As these programs continue to think through methods of serving a diverse student population, their potential both to transform museums into hubs of creation and to inspire a new generation of STEM leaders will only grow.
Laura Mitchell is the Plinth editor and contributor for the New England region and an M.A. candidate in Public Humanities at Brown University. She is on twitter @lb_mitch.