LEGO introduces female lab scientist

LEGO’s new female scientist “minifigure” helps break stereotypes that discourage girls from considering STEM careers, writes Maia Weinstock, a Scientific American guest blogger.

Originally, LEGO people wore very simple clothing and had “two dots and a curved smile for a face,” writes Weinstock. Minifigures were introduced in 1978.

The first female minifig in LEGO’s Space series was an
Cover edit 3
astronaut in the Ice Planet 2002 series, which depicted scientists working on the fictional planet Krysto.

LEGO’s Town (now City) series, which features minifigs in everyday life, includes doctors, EMTs, engineers, astronauts and space scientists. A Town doctor was the first female minifig in the series.

Most STEM professionals issued recently have been male, including the Computer Programmer, which debuted last year. He’s a cringe-worthy stereotype, writes Weinstock. Cover edit 3 “His nerdy attire, including bow tie and broken glasses, harkens back to an era and style that rendered programmers completely uncool.” (Are they cool now?)

LEGO also has a thing for mad scientists. The first one “wore a lab coat, a stethoscope, and a patently diabolical face.” Now there’s a wild-gray-haired Crazy Scientist, though he doesn’t look quite so evil.

Here are some examples of male and female minifigures in STEM-related professions.

Examples of male and female minifigures in STEM-related professions

 

Latino kids don’t see themselves in books

Young Latino Students Don’t See Themselves in Books, according to the New York Times.  Hispanic students make up nearly a quarter of public school students, but only a small fraction of characters in books for elementary students.

The main characters in the most popular books are white with African-American, Asian or Hispanic characters more likely to appear in supporting roles.

“Kids do have a different kind of connection when they see a character that looks like them or they experience a plot or a theme that relates to something they’ve experienced in their lives,” said Jane Fleming, an assistant professor at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in early childhood development in Chicago.

She and Sandy Ruvalcaba Carrillo, an elementary school teacher in Chicago who works with students who speak languages other than English at home, reviewed 250 book series aimed at second to fourth graders and found just two that featured a Latino main character.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, which compiles statistics about the race of authors and characters in children’s books published each year, found that in 2011, just over 3 percent of the 3,400 books reviewed were written by or about Latinos, a proportion that has not changed much in a decade.

Common Core State Standards’ list of suggested books for early elementary students contains black characters and authors, but few Latinos. More will be added, said Susan Pimentel, one of the lead writers. “We are determined to make this right.”

“Research on a direct link between cultural relevance in books and reading achievement at young ages is so far scant,” reports the Times. I think that means there is no evidence. But that doesn’t stop academics from worrying that kids will feel alienated “if all they read is Judy Blume or characters in the Magic Treehouse series who are white and go on adventures.” (What about white kids who don’t have a magic treehouse that provides adventures?)

At Bayard Taylor Elementary in Philadelphia, a school where three-quarters of the students are Latino, Kimberly Blake, a third-grade bilingual teacher, said she struggles to find books about Latino children that are “about normal, everyday people.” The few that are available tend to focus on stereotypes of migrant workers or on special holidays. “Our students look the way they look every single day of the year,” Ms. Blake said, “not just on Cinco de Mayo or Puerto Rican Day.”

On a recent morning, Ms. Blake read from “Amelia’s Road” by Linda Jacobs Altman, about a daughter of migrant workers. Of all the children sitting cross-legged on the rug, only Mario said that his mother had worked on farms.

However, a book that colors every fourth child brown may be accused of tokenism.

As a reading tutor, I see a lot of books for young children that feature animals — especially cats, bats and rats. They sit on mats and try on hats. Humans are named Nan, Fran, Pam, Sam, Tam, Tim and Sim. It’s not a rich cultural milieu for children of any background. I can tell you what little girls of all colors and creeds long to read: the Pinkalicious series. Sadly, my kids can only handle “tan” and “red.”

A good book is a good book is a good book,” writes author Nikki Grimes in Color Me Perplexed. “The single most important question we should ask when considering a book for our classroom or library shelves is, is the book any good?”

When I was researching Our School (which makes a lovely holiday gift), I saw students from Mexican immigrant families fall in love with Harry Potter books. The kids weren’t British or pale skinned. They weren’t wizards either. They liked the story.

Study: Teachers think white girls can’t do math

High school teachers think white girls can’t do math, concludes a University of Texas study.  “Even with the same grades and the same test scores, the teachers are still ranking the girls as less good at math than the boys,” says Catherine Riegle-Crumb, co-author of the bias study. By contrast, teachers’ perceptions of minority students’ math abilities matched their achievement.

 

Stereotypes don’t explain the gender gap in math

“Stereotype threat” doesn’t explain why fewer females excel in math, conclude University of Missouri Professor David Geary and University of Leeds Professor Gijsbert Stoet.

Since 1999, numerous studies have claimed that women’s math performance is undermined by lack of confidence, which is caused by the belief that men are better at math. “The stereotype theory really was adopted by psychologists and policy makers around the world as the final word, with the idea that eliminating the stereotype could eliminate the gender gap,” says Geary. “However, even with many programs established to address the issue, the problem continued. We now believe the wrong problem is being addressed.”

Many studies of stereotype threat were poorly designed and used statistical techniques improperly, Geary and Stoet argue.

“We were surprised the researchers did not subject males to the same experimental manipulations as female participants,” Geary said. “It is reasonable to think that men also would not do well if told ‘men normally do worse on this test’ right before they take the test. When we adjusted the findings based on this and other statistical factors, we found little to no significant stereotype theory effect.”

Focusing on reducing stereotypes will not produce more female mathematicians and scientists, Geary says.

“Can stereotype threat explain the sex gap in mathematics performance and achievement?” will be published in the journal Review of General Psychology.