Women’s History and STEM: 7 Ideas for Young Explorers

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For centuries, women have studied and made groundbreaking discoveries in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. Encourage your girls and boys to appreciate the contributions of women scientists. With our seven ideas, learn about some outstanding women from the history of STEM innovation and inspire your kids’ scientific explorations – indoors and outdoors.

1. Learn to Code: Get your kids curious and excited about the code that runs computer software and games, tablet computers and much more. Try some fun, interactive computer coding tutorials for beginners of any age from Code.org.

Do you know about Admiral Grace Murray Hopper? Hopper was a mathematician, pioneer in the field of computer programming and a visionary who recognized the vast potential of computers and software applications. She served in the Navy and led a team of researchers who worked on code compilers and data processing. Hopper was a co-inventor of COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language).

Daily log book entry with first computer "bug" - a real moth taped to it.

Grace Murray Hopper is credited with coining the term “bug” for computer error after she found an actual moth in the Navy’s Mark II computer. The moth was taped into a daily log book!Source: Naval History & Heritage Command

Drawing of four butterflies on a plant

An illustration by Anna B. Comstock. Source: USDA Blog

2. Draw scientific illustrations: Go on a backyard exploration or visit a neighborhood or state or national park, and spend some time making your own drawings of plants, insects, birds or other animals. Don’t forget your sketchbook and pencils! Later see if you can look up and identify the scientific names of the plants, insects and animals you observed and drew. Add those names to your drawings.

Learn more about Anna Botsford Comstock (1854-1930), who made many contributions as a scientific illustrator and educator.  She emerged as a leader in nature studies and was the first female professor at Cornell. As an artist she produced over 600 insect illustrations. As a teacher she opened the classroom doors and brought her students and other teachers outside to study nature firsthand.


3. Build a space shuttle or space station:  Build a model or make-believe space shuttle or space station with your kids. Younger children would enjoy making a rocket ship that could hold a stuffed animal or doll who could be the astronaut. You could even design and decorate a large, leftover cardboard box or boxes to be a space ship or station with crayons or markers and let the children pretend to be astronauts on a space mission.

Learn more about women in aeronautics like the iconic pioneer Sally Ride on the website of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) at NASA.gov. On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride launched aboard space shuttle Challenger’s STS-7 mission and became America’s first woman in space.

Sally Ride

Astronaut Sally Ride. Source: National Archives and Records Administration

4. Get moving and train like an astronaut: Astronauts need to be very fit to survive well in space and complete their missions. On earth and in space, they eat a healthy, balanced diet and exercise regularly. Try these astronaut-inspired exercises from NASA with your future astronauts. Check some of your vital stats – like your height and weight – and calculate your heart rate by checking your pulse to see the difference in rate between rest and after exercise.

5. Focus on the solar system and constellations:  Build a three-dimensional model of the solar system using craft supplies or draw a two-dimensional version on paper or poster board. Together with your kids learn more about the solar system and the characteristics of each planet, including its color, size and other attributes.

Gaze at the night sky – from your or a friend’s backyard. Contact a local planetarium or observatory affiliated with a museum or university to see if they offer any free open houses or tours. Find a local astronomy club or check out some astronomy toolkits and activities from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab’s Night Sky Network website.

Learn about Venetia Burney, the 11-year-old girl who suggested the name for the dwarf planet Pluto in 1930. She grew up to become a teacher of economics and mathematics. Listen to a NASA podcast interview with Venetia Burney Phair (mp3) from 2006, 76 years after her suggestion, or read the transcript.

Watch this video from a 2013 Let’s Read! Let’s Move! event at the U.S. Department of Education, which includes activities for young learners about the solar system and a story time reading of Pluto’s Secret: An Icy World’s Tale of Discovery.

6. Explore the world through math: Mathematics involves theories and concepts that can be applied in practical, everyday uses. It’s important for both girls and boys to know that being good at math – and building excellent math skills – takes work and lots of practice. Discover some fun hands-on activities and math games in FREE. For more advanced young mathematicians, learn about probability with activities in FREE. For young children, check out counting games and more in the PBS Kids Lab, powered by a U.S. Department of Education Ready to Learn grant.

Have you heard of Hypatia? This mathematician, astronomer and philosopher lived in Alexandria, Egypt, in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. Her father, Theon, was a scholar and professor, and he taught her mathematics, astronomy and more. Hypatia is known for editing On the Conics of Apollonius, simplifying cone-related concepts. Read more about Hypatia and biographies of other women of mathematics.

7. Be an inventor or architect and build something amazing: Spatial skills help us visualize three-dimensional objects and are key to design and problem-solving in STEM fields like mechanical or civil engineering. Get out your building toys and bricks, or visit your local library’s children’s and teen’s area, which may have some available to borrow in the room. Encourage your boys and girls of any age to design and build their own creation, or make a model of a machine or a famous building.

If the building, model or machine doesn’t work the first time, discuss and analyze why maybe it didn’t. Talk with the kids about how engineering can involve trial-and-error and developing a series of models or prototypes – each one a little more effective than the one before. Don’t give up!

For inspiration, look up photographs of the works of contemporary women architects like Zaha Hadid, the first woman to receive the Pritzker Prize for Architecture in 2004. Among Hadid’s well-known designs are the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati and Guangzhou Opera House in China.



These are just a few ideas to get kids excited about STEM fields of exploration and study.  The activities and resources for encouraging girls in science in FREE could be used to encourage girls and boys to take more interest in STEM and appreciate the contributions of women scientists and mathematicians. Together, keep asking, “Why?” and “How?” and stay curious!

code // NASA // space // STEAM // STEM // USDA // women // women's history // March 14, 2014