Girls are good at math and science

Encourage exploration in your own back yard

It wasn’t until eighth grade that math clicked for me. Up until that point, I would giggle at my tests, which often had “See me” written at the top in angry red pen. I’d pass the comment off with shrug, because girls aren’t good at math and science, so what did they expect? Right?

But Mr. Atkins, my eighth-grade math teacher, drew out my inner mathematician with humor, patience and undying confidence. I still feel a rush of pride when I recall the “90!!!!!!” (written in happy green pen) on an algebra exam. I was a girl. I could do math. Whaddya know.

“There is a big shift in the old ‘girls can’t do math and science’ stigma. That mindset has definitely lessened,” says Danielle Fisher Barschdorf, science department chairwoman and sixth- and seventh-grade math and science teacher at North Yarmouth Academy. “It is a huge step forward for girls to realize that math and science are empowering when they feel confident in asking questions to figure out how things work or pursuing what they want to know more about.”

Many girls gravitate toward science from a young age; there is a natural pull toward the colors, sounds and mysteries of nature. Here in Maine, there is ample opportunity to turn the back yard into living education. It is as simple as turning the space around you into an outdoor classroom: Look for monarch caterpillars on milkweed, use a reference book to classify edible plants, search for patterns in tree bark, close your eyes to identify bird calls and stay up late to learn constellations.

“When I was in first grade, I was up at 7 to spend the entire day in the tide pools,” says Jacqueline Boudreau, a wildlife biologist who has studied marine ecosystems in Maine and wildlife biology in California, Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. “It became its own universe, constantly unfolding life upon life. That outdoor education continued to spur my curiosity on what else was out there,” she says. “Once, when I was swimming, a seal mom and pup popped up and looked right into my eyes. Those moments you remember much longer than what you unwrapped for your birthday.”

The magic of nature summons questions and curiosity like nothing else. What a simple and wondrous way to inspire young minds to explore the world around them.

“Stimulation from the outdoors opens the brain in different ways,” says Jacqueline. “How can you not be excited to see life pulsating in your hands? That doesn’t happen reading a textbook at a desk. That doorway to laws and rhythms of daily life, the real math and science, has to be open to bring that understanding to kids. Without that, there is no ‘us’.”

The importance of role models also cannot be understated. Though she recommends limiting screen time in general, Danielle loves the website amightygirl.com.

“It includes stories, book ideas, toy ideas and many other things. Showing examples of strong females in science and math is not only good modeling for girls, but is just as important for boys.  Boys need great female role models, as well,” she says.

Jacqueline notes the support her elementary school teachers showed her was vital in fostering her love and interest of science. “If I wasn’t so supported, I wonder how that would have felt. My teachers sent me to a Women in Science expo and it struck me greatly to see all of these amazing role models. It is so important to have someone to look up to, talk to and see as inspiration.”

Maggie Knowles used to cover the dining and theater scene in Boston. Then she had her son, so now she writes about all things kid. She and her family live in Yarmouth, where she gardens, keeps bees and refuses to get rid of her stilettos.

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