Sister School: Girls, STEM, and Flunking Physics

This post is going to be about math and science. 

If you have your own math anxieties, please 1) friend my friend Laura Laing on Facebook at Math For Grownups, and then 2) head to Math For Grownups for a pep talk and a cyber hug. I'll wait....


Ready? Okay! (Feel free to keep a brown paper bag close by in case you start hyperventilating.)

It wasn’t Sister Thomas Joseph’s fault that I was flunking Physics.

Sister Thomas was brilliant, passionate about science, and in 11th grade Chemistry class she let us play with Sterno and acids and all sorts of glass beakers that I still recognize today when watching Breaking Bad. In Physics class that Senior year, we threw Slinkies from the third floor windows to prove something or other to do with corresponding numbers and equations. Her science class was definitely hand’s on, slightly dangerous, and nothing if not engaging. Sort of the X Games/James Bond part of the school day.

Sister Thomas was one of those gifted minds that make some people wonder, “What the hell are you doing teaching in a small, backwater Catholic school?” And most likely left more cynical types thinking, “How on earth did a mind devoted to scientific inquiry end up wrapped in a habit?”

But we students didn’t wonder.

Tall and lanky, Sister Thomas Joseph ruled the third floor chemistry lab and coached the girls’ softball team after school. Sister Anne de Beaupre – Sister Thomas Josephs’ exact size/shape opposite - took us through health and biology class, overseeing the dissection of worms and frogs, as well clarifying any of our nonsensical whisperings about just what our newly curving and sprouting human bodies were and were not capable of.

And then there was Sister Ann Martin.

I just told my mom the other day that of all my teachers throughout high school and college, it was Sister Ann Martin who was possibly most fiercely devoted to her subject: World Cultures. One time she took all her students on a two-hour road trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Manifestations of Shiva exhibit and guided us through the rooms full of artifacts the way kids move through toy stores before Christmas –gasping and pointing to an exhibit piece, barely containing her own excitement over being so physically close to something she’d studied backward and forward but up until now only dreamed of possessing (even if only with her eyes), explaining to us the significance of the object in detail far beyond what even an AP class would consider “a bit too fancy pants with the knowing stuff.”

I wonder what other patrons thought of this gaggle of Catholic school kids not daring to crack a smile as a highly-animated young nun detailed to them the significance of the Shiva linga statue? These days, you just don’t get that kind of on-the-spot, differentiation and disambiguation among the thousands-year-old meanings of a word, including discussion of the phallic misnomers. Not without a note from your parents and a background check.

But back in Physics class that day the sunlight was starting to bend through the open double hung windows, a spring breeze was blowing down off the mountains, and Sister Thomas was marking the blackboard with  equations that, who knows, could have held the secrets to time space, or could also have been some trajectory for the eraser she wanted to throw at my head.

By final semester that Senior year, there were a few things set in my head that weren’t going to change: I was heading to Boston University in the fall; I was going to get up the nerve to ask the boy who sat in front of me to the prom; and I was never, ever, ever going to have to take another science or math class again. Or at least until that September.

My first year in college, I ended up acing my Geology and Computer Science classes.


I recently got in touch with my friend Jeanne Garbarino – postdoctoral fellow at Rockefeller University and biology editor at Double X Science (that’s double X as in female chromosomes, not double X as in Fifty Shades of Pheromones) to talk to her about her experiences as a female math/science student.  And also what she thought were ways to keep more girls interested in STEM subjects as students, as careers, and as lifelong learners.

Are the stereotypes of “girls good at language arts/boys good at math science” still around today?  Did those stereotypes affect you during your education and career?

Old habits die  hard, and this is still apparent when it comes to smarts and gender.  While most teachers are fully aware of the non-difference when it comes to gender and academic ability, many parents and caregivers, raised in an era when girls did one thing and boys did another, still keep the stereotype alive.  And this is especially apparent in first generation American kids.  For instance, I have a few female friends whose parents immigrated to the states when they were babies.  These women were discouraged from taking courses like math and science because “being smart will not get you a husband.”  They actually had to hide their math textbooks from their parents! 

For me, I didn’t experience too much (noticeable) gender-based stereotypes as a kid – except I was a little angry in 7th grade when the ability to skip 8th grade was only offered to 2 boys in our class (both of whom were my intellectual equals).  OK, it was so they could enter an all boys high school a year early, but still – I was angry because the same opportunity was not offered to girls.  However, by the time I got to high school, my confidence was shot, and I questioned if I was smart enough to roll in the honors classes with the rest of them.  I actually aced all of my math classes, but despite having a track record of good grades, I always felt that I wasn’t going to score as high as the more nerdpopular boys in my class (nerdpopular is my term to describe someone who is known for being smart). 

And, there was one incident in my 10th grade chemistry class when I (reluctantly) raised my hand to answer a question, and used the word “hydrodynamic” in my answer.  Then, Jeff – the resident perfect SAT scorer and arrogant classmate – makes an underhanded comment about how he was impressed at my usage of such a big word.  The class laughed and I felt even dumber, even though I just gave the right answer and then some!  I don’t know if this had anything to do with my being a girl, or if I was just being teased.  Nonetheless, it ripped any last bits of confidence I had to shreds.    

The major reduction in confidence many girls experience as they enter the formidable teenage years is largely responsible for the drop in test scores in subjects relating to STEM, and also seems to be the culprit behind the small number of girls going into STEM fields (check out this cool infographic:  Unfortunately, this just sets the stage for a girl's future career.  Because girls don’t feel like they are “smart enough” for science, math, engineering, etc., they just forgo taking any of those courses in the first place.  I was lucky because even though I felt like I didn’t belong in the sciences (at first), I powered through and emerged as the go-to for class help – even at 4 AM when students, unawares of other peoples’ schedules/desires to sleep, would knock on my dorm door for help.  By that time, my mind was set on going into basic science research, and it was pretty much a straight shot from there. 

Who or what are some of the important influences battling any of the leftover stereotypes about girls and math?

When kids are in preschool, their viewpoints about math and science are largely unshaped.  They probably think that a scientist is “cool” and that this profession can be included in the super awesome repertoire of pretend play.  However, this momentum is slowed as the kids become more exposed to societal norms, which are chock-full of gender claims.

I truly believe that we need to work hard at keeping the momentum going, identifying and removing roadblocks along the way.  This takes positive reinforcement and positive STEM role models – from both genders!  While there are superstars like Neil deGrasse Tyson doing a fabulous job at this, we have to consider that parents, teachers, friends, family can all play a small or large part.

For instance, I spent last year face-timing with my daughter’s preschool class on a weekly basis. I fielded questions about science, showed them my lab, and introduced other scientists (men and women) along the way.  Each session was only about 10 minutes, but it was enough to make an impact.  These tiny efforts are super important and I think having role models as early as possible is ideal.  

If a middle school girl told you, “I hate science/math. I’m just not good at it. It’s boring,” what would you tell her?

First, I’d probably ask her why she thought that in the first place. Then, I’d give my version of math and science - maybe talk about freezing point depression while making ice cream, or acids and bases while tie-dying t-shirts (yes, these are admittedly cheap but incredibly powerful tricks to rope those kids in). I’d probably talk to her about how we need more strong women in STEM and how I believe that she can be one of them.  Basically, I’d try to encourage her to try without being all lecture-y, and show her the awesome applications of science and math in the real world.    

What about the kid- boy or girl - who says, “I just don’t see why I need this stuff. I’m going to be a writer/artist/athlete, etc.”

I guess I would start by providing examples of applications and why knowing science/math is important even for everyday living.  It is important to be an educated consumer, and I believe science and math training is poised to develop critical thinking abilities, which, in turn, helps one to more easily identify when you are being fleeced.  We get a lot of our information from the internet, and sometimes we can get roped into believing something that is completely untrue or even dangerous, especially when it comes to health.  Knowing the basics can help one to identify false health claims and even save you money.

Plus, you look cool being able to calculate the tip and how much everyone owes when going out to dinner with friends. 

I don’t blame Sister Thomas Joseph for my F in Physics. 

That was me not "hitting the books" and a touch of Senior year doldrums.

Never once did I think, “I can’t do this,” and I doubt that anyone in Cardinal Brennan High School would consider the stereotype of "women just don't have the same brain power as men" a weight on any scale.

The sisters were all pretty much fantastic teachers and role models, and I constantly surprise myself with the facts and theories I do remember. 

And somewhere along the way, they taught me how to keep asking questions and to keep learning. There's always so much more to learn.

Which, maybe, is one of the most important lessons.

When Josette is not writing about incredibly important stuff, you can find her immersed in fluffiness up to her eyeballs at

For more on girls in math and science-y stuff check out these links!

Girl Scouts in STEM
Science: It's A Girl Thing!
Brain Cake
Cool Girls Science and Arts


MommyTime said...

My math and computer science genius sister thinks she can't write. She loves to read. In fact, she also tells a very good story. But she was convinced all through school that she couldn't write, and she had such conviction that she actually kept herself from being able to write, and found English classes extremely difficult. I guess my point is that I think that in addition to the gender issues at stake, there is also a crazy perception that it's not possible to be good at both math and words at the same time. I'm not talking Nobel Prize good, which, of course, requires a level of specialization that precludes excelling similarly in every field. I'm just talking, getting good grades in high school good. I think a lot of kids find some subjects "easy" and thus become convinced they can't do the others. We need to work on convincing kids that they CAN be well-rounded.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

I was not a math/science kid, but I vowed to never let on to my kids and was always enthusiastic about science in the preschool years--doing science experiments at home and checking out books from the library.

I've got a chemistry major (daughter), wildlife biology major (son) and public health major (daughter)--my younger son is going to be like his Mama and teach English, but that's just so he can coach high school water polo.

Girl Scouts are phenomenal at finding ways to incorporate STEM into the program.

Anonymous said...

Whatever you can do to keep them engaged is best. This might mean project-based lessons or lots of demonstrations. Make sure there is time for students to interact with each other too. If you have been interested just click

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