THE BLOG

Can Boys And Girls Learn Better Together?

08/27/2013 01:28 pm ET | Updated Oct 22, 2013

Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

I have devoted my life to promoting the development of girls. I work with a team at Techbridge to host after-school and summer programs for girls where they get to tinker and discover their inner engineer. I sometimes get surprised reactions when I share that I don't have a daughter. I started this work over two decades ago--not for a daughter, but for my son, Kyle. Kyle is grown now and in the workforce; I hope that a Techbridge girl works alongside him someday. I do this work for your daughters.

When Kyle went to preschool, I did too. One day a week I volunteered at the Montclair Community Play Center. While working at the cooperative, I was surprised by how different the experiences were for girls and boys. When Kyle arrived, he was greeted by a parent who directed him to a special activity set up for the day. The girls were more likely to hear a comment about their outfit or new pair of shoes. Most days, Kyle went straight to the blocks corner, where he and his friends built imaginary cities, seeing who could build the tallest tower. They looked like architects and engineers in the making. The girls were in the doll corner playing house and practicing language and social skills.

I didn't think that one kind of play was better than the other. But I did wonder if girls and boys wouldn't be better served if they shared their toys and played together. I wanted Kyle to have the chance to play with boys and girls. I wanted him to play with the games and the toys that would build his spatial, language, and social skills.

While no one else at the preschool had questioned the dynamic, they were willing to give my idea of mixing things up try. I invited the other parents to help me set up a vet clinic that combined the set of wooden blocks with an assortment of stuffed animals. This slight variation on their play shifted the mindset of the group. Now the blocks weren't the domain of the boys nor were the stuffed animals just for girls. The girls did enjoy building when it involved a social purpose and more than a race to build and topple their work. The boys did enjoy fantasy play and taking care of the animals when it included construction. With this socially engineered intervention, the girls and boys found common ground.

Kyle continued to build long after preschool. The wooden blocks were replaced with elaborate LEGO sets. Our dining room table was often the base for tinkering projects where Kyle learned the engineering design process. We didn't mind that we shared our meals with his work and play. As a parent I did all that I could to support his interest with toys, summer camps, and encouragement. Kyle went on to the Engineering Academy at Oakland Technical High School where he learned the math and physics skills that would provide the foundation for doing real engineering. Tinkering continued; it was just the size and scope of the projects that changed. Maybe it was destiny that Kyle would attend the College of Engineering at U.C. Berkeley. I was disappointed that there were so few women in his engineering class--only one in four students were females. Even worse, the enrollment of women in engineering at Cal has declined since.

In the years since preschool, I have managed programs for girls. Contrary to what the statistics for females in engineering in college and the workforce might suggest, girls do like engineering when they've have the chance to build and take things apart. Generation STEM, a report by the Girl Scout Research Institute, shares that girls do like to learn how things work. They also want to help people and make a difference in the world. Unfortunately, not enough girls understand how engineering can help them achieve their goals. And, not enough girls have someone to encourage them to become an engineer.

My work has come full circle and Techbridge girls are now returning as role models to the after-school programs they once attended. They are encouraging girls to follow in their footsteps and study engineering. I wish that there were many more women alongside our Techbridge alumnae in engineering programs. I encourage you to do some social engineering in your community--whether its enrolling your daughter in a coding class, buying GoldieBox for a niece, or being a role model to a girl and introducing her to the joys of a life in STEM.

Linda Kekelis is Executive Director of Techbridge, a nonprofit that inspires girls in science, technology, and engineering. With over 20 years' experience designing and leading girls' programs, Linda conducts research, participates in national conferences, and writes, translating research into practical applications for educators, professionals, and parents. She has a doctorate in special education from the University of California, Berkeley.