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Learning Progressions: Reach for the Stars with Girls in STEM

Bedtime Math is a favorite night-time ritual in our house. My son and daughter cuddle up with me after we’ve finished reading our bedtime books and it’s on to some fun word problems. Bedtime Math (English and Spanish) delivers quick and engaging math story problems every day for children to think, talk through and solve together with an adult at home. Two added benefits of this nighttime ritual is that I’m helping to narrow the “math anxiety gap,” according to a recent University of Chicago study, and I’m introducing math and science as a learning progression at an early age. The app is one step of an intentional strategy to raise my kids with a purposeful exposure to STEM, particularly my daughter. Fortuitously, last night’s Bedtime Math daily math problem centered on the Hubble Space Telescope. My daughter instantly wanted to see Hubble Space Telescope Images. We compared the pictures that Hubble took with what we could see with our naked eye and talked about our new telescope at home. My daughter has been interested in astronomy since she was first introduced to phases of the moon in preschool.

Growing-up, my parents were intentional in providing my brother with STEM-rich experiences, including trips to the science museums, educational science toys, science summer camps, etc.  In school, his teachers encouraged him to pursue science clubs after-school.  My brother is now a talented engineer.  While I had a strong interest in science, particularly in astronomy, my parents and teachers encouraged me to study music, writing and dance and to pursue a degree in history and political science in college.  I often wonder how much of my learning progression is related to my gender.

Last year, I had the opportunity to work with an exceptional math teacher at Rio Mesa High School, Jeremiah Brennan. We worked together to bring a 3D printing program to his math class that would challenge students to design the most efficient wind turbine in a 12 week design competition.  An all-girl team won the competition.  This class was leaps and bounds more engaging than any math course I had taken in high school and I hoped with all my heart that this opened the door for students to the possibility that engineering or math may be a field to continue to pursue, particularly the girls.

While I’m thrilled that schools have shifted to ushering students into pathways for new STEM-rich opportunities, I know as a parent that I have to continue that progress at home too.  Recently, my supervisor and friend gave me a telescope.  With this gesture, my friend had revived all of the excitement I felt studying astronomy in college and I was interested in revisiting astronomy once again.  As an adult you can decide to learn new things and go on a journey of learning and exploration, but as a child it seems that it takes someone to gift a child with that opportunity.  I have become intentional about sharing my love for astronomy and my love of learning with my kids and particularly my daughter.  I seek out opportunities for her to engage in STEM-rich activities that align with her interests and build upon her foundational STEM education and include more sophisticated experiential learning.  Our nighttime ritual will expand to include looking at the stars as well as Bedtime Math.  Kids need someone to open the door for them to new STEM-rich learning experiences, especially us girls.

Learning progressions are intentional systems that chart a sequence of knowledge and skills which cultivates more sophisticated learning for learners to advance through in their formal and informal educational experiences.  The Ventura County STEM Network has developed recommendations for high-quality STEM learning, including recommendations to pave the path with intentional learning progressions. I invite both educators and parents/guardians to peruse the recommendations for elements of high-quality STEM learning.

About the Author: Sandy Birmingham serves as the Associate Director for STEM Educational Outreach for Project PROMESAS at California State University Channel Islands and was a classroom teacher and afterschool educator.   She is also a member of the Ventura County STEM Network.

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