Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Girls n Boys n Science Exhibits

maria mortati
Yesterday's suggestion that women may have a different engagement with science+technology than men meshes with some research we've been tracking here at Gyroscope:
"For decades, women have been chronically underrepresented in the sciences. More than two decades of research has uncovered a source of this bottleneck: real differences between how women and girls approach technology and the sciences versus men and boys. Women and girls tend to view technology as a tool for communication, companionship, and social utility, often focusing on what technology can “do” to improve the conditions of everyday living. In contrast, men and boys tend to view it as an object that will help them transcend the barriers."
- The Center for Children and Technology
Historically, science museums (through no fault of their own) have catered toward a more boy-centric approach to science exhibits. Think of phenomena rich, context "lite" traditional science exhibits. Turns out maybe girls just wanna have more... connection. We're working on what more gender-equal science exhibits might look like. Stay tuned for research and insights as we progress... and feel free to point us to any info you've found!


Paul Orselli said...


There are many interesting studies that show, without question, that boys and girls use and react to technology in different ways, but s the father of 3 sons and 1 daughter, AND an exhibit developer, I'd strongly question your assertion about science centers and science museums developing exhibitions that primarily cater to boys.

Maria Mortati said...

Hey thanks for your thoughts, Paul.

This is a complicated, nuanced issue that I believe is worth exploring further. Which is why I ventured into these waters.

A lot of our "traditional" science exhibits have been primarily about phenomena. Think of the Exploratorium. Not as much of the exhibit experience tends to focus on interconnections, or applications to the greater good, etc.

I'm not suggesting that ALL science exhibits cater to boys, to be clear.

Science/technology curricula has followed a path that happened to favor the learning styles of boys, and likewise, there have been parallels in informal science education.

Dr. Brunner referred to the difference in learning styles as a "butch" vs. "fem" quality, in a talk related to science exhibits. I've written to her in hopes that she'll send me some data that I can reference in future posts.

I have a mother-in-law who is a fairly famous x-ray crystallographer, and a stepdaugher who is pretty good in science and math- I'm no Larry Summers.

Just (will be saying in future posts) that perhaps adding context and connections to science phenomena exhibits might go a long way.

If that's a small part of what we need to do to get more girls engaged, then why not do it?

Dave said...

It's not really any surprise that a society that has, for hundreds of years systematically denied opportunity to use the tools of science and technology to girls and women should come to have sociological differences in how girls and women learn to use those tools.

That said, why should an exhibit designer assume that the differences which learning and socializing certainly tend to reinforce in one gender and diminish in the other are, ipso facto, gender-related? All the studies of gender difference deal with an already-socialized population and interaction helps form the brain so even "biological" differences can be socially produced. Besides kids are much more complex than a simple butch-fem dichotomy. My 9-year old daughter wants a female friend for a 1:1 playdate and is gaga over the Jonas Borthers, but invited boys to her birthday party "because they are fun to chase," and chase them she did. Speaking of technology, the girls outscored the boys 2:1 in laser tag.

It seems like an approach that assumes that people fall across a spectrum of approaches to the use of technology, independent of gender(or anything else), would be more likely to yield an exhibit that engages more boys and more girls because it engages more people, period.

The other thing that will make a big difference is paying attention to subtly biased messaging. Look at the graphic accompanying your post. The silhouettes are obviously stereotyped, but less obvious are the differences in color palette, the uncalloused (supposedly) working hands, the nature of the handwork, etc. If you put a graphic like the right hand side on the part of the exhibit that's about connections, then you send a message that reinforces the social stereotype that girls are supposed to form social groups and do fine piece work and food preparation.

These stereotypes are deeply embedded in our culture and there is a lot of mythology about the supposed biological basis for the supposed differences. It is very easy to produce pieces that reinforce these biases, because everyone will be comfortable with them. It is much harder, but ultimately incredibly valuable to produce pieces that actively challenge the notion of gender preference itself. Issue an invitation to both phenomena and connections that is not just gender-neutral, but is carefully and explicitly independent of gender and inviting to a wide range of social styles.

David Smith, Da Vinci Science Center

Maria Mortati said...

Hi Dave,

I agree that these stereotypes are deeply embedded- which is why I pushed it in the graphic (to be funny, not literal).

We'd like people to be aware of the idea that solely utilizing phenomena-centric exhibits are not the only way to go-- there are lots of reasons why (butch/fem learning tendencies are one of them). We're not saying that awesome, one hit wonder exhibits are not good, we're saying that floor space needs to be balanced with other exhibits that delve into sharing knowledge, context, and fostering application. Interestingly enough, the National Science Standards do a good job of expanding upon this.

The posting was to encourage folks to think about exactly what you articulated so well: "It seems like an approach that assumes that people fall across a spectrum of approaches to the use of technology, independent of gender(or anything else), would be more likely to yield an exhibit that engages more boys and more girls because it engages more people, period."

That's the gold standard for us, as I'm sure others.

PS: the image of the hands behind the girls is from the The International Rice Research Institute project.

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