Space Wands and Table Saws: Tools and Rules for Girls at California’s Science Centers

This long post–so long that you might want to print it out and take it with you–draws on research I undertook a few years back in 2002.  A shorter version of this post is available at the WestMuse blog. For the purposes of the paper I was writing, I interviewed a dozen employees of science centers, but many spoke off the record; accordingly, I have removed all interviewees’ names, and frequently any identifying information about their institutions, from this post.  This research was supported in part by a grant from the Consortium for Women and Research at the University of California, Davis.

Between 2001 and 2004, when I was working as an educator, exhibition developer, or occasional evaluator for Explorit Science Center in Davis, California, I often found myself standing in front of classrooms of elementary school children.  Chances were about even that one of the girls would say to me, “You’re pretty” or “I like your hair.”  Even some of their thank-you notes to me said such things, scrawled there at the end after “I learned that I will be 5 feet 6 inches tall.”  Boys wrote things like, “I learned dinosaurs poop and it turns into a rock.”  I wish the girls would, to a person, write about coprolites and gastroliths, about hissing roaches and the mites that swarm over giant millipedes’ legs.  In my experience, girls do seem interested in science, but the things they focus on and remember are much more person-oriented and bodily than are boys’ observations.

When I mentioned my frustration with girls and the lack of opportunities available specifically to girls to a staff member at Explorit, she sighed and lamented that many of the center’s science-centered birthday parties have “boy” themes, like “Rockin’ the Earth” or “Dinosaurs and Reptiles.”  She suggested developing a birthday party focused on kitchen science.  And indeed, “Kitchen Chemistry” is one of the science center’s most popular special parent-child classes.  But must girls be left stirring in the kitchen, while the boys are in the multipurpose room making balloon rockets?

While many of the girls in the classes and birthday parties I oversaw seemed truly engaged with the hands-on science presented in the lessons, I wondered how many of them would nurture that interest through their teen years and into college.  Since K-16 schools too frequently fail to inspire girls and young women to pursue science, I want to see if informal science learning might be more successful.  In particular, I want to focus on the opportunities available to girls and young women at museums and science centers.

Over the past three decades, there has been incredible growth in both the quantity and quality of science museums and science centers throughout the United States, and especially in California.  During the same time period, it has become evident that traditional schooling systems have not been entirely successful in engaging young women in science.  While girls are enrolling in some advanced science classes at the same rates as their male counterparts, they still drop out of the “science pipeline.”  I undertook this project to discover what informal science learning activities science centers are developing to ensure that girls are made aware of and encouraged to pursue the incredible lifetime opportunities available to those who choose scientific careers.  This project explores, then, the informal science learning experiences available throughout childhood and adolescence and their success in sparking young women’s desires to pursue scientific careers.


Over the past two decades, feminist theorists have sought to uncover the androcentric, classist, and racist bias inherent in scientific practice and forge new epistemologies to counteract those tendencies.  These scholars have highlighted scientific injustices toward women in the development and structure of scientific research, the collection of data, the interpretation of experimental results, and the reporting of these results to a wider audience.  Although many of these theorists have cited concrete examples of this bias, few have recommended similarly concrete steps that scientists and nonscientists alike might take to transform science into a more inclusive enterprise.

Science studies theorist Helen Longino emphasizes the necessity of crossing this bridge.  “We cannot restrict ourselves simply to the elimination of bias, but must expand our scope to include the detection of limiting and interpretive frameworks and the finding or construction of more appropriate frameworks.”  It is a matter of changing not just the content of science, but its entire context.  In changing the context of science, Longino explains, we are trying to bring it into line with “the values and commitments we express in the rest of our lives” (1987, 60).  In short, if a community values women and the health of all its members, then it must encourage its resident women to participate in science.  But what institutions in a community can provide the framework needed to sustain girls’ and young women’s interests in science?

The answer may be simple.  Many metropolitan areas boast an impressive assortment of museums, science centers, zoos, aquaria, and botanical gardens.  These spaces are critical locations for not only public learning, but also public dialogue on a broad spectrum of issues.   Although much scholarly work has sought to elucidate the sources of social controversies in history and art museums and recommend ways to solve tensions within and between the communities museums serve, significantly less scholarly attention has been paid to science centers and how these museums’ exhibits and outreach programs affect girls’ and women’s perception of, and participation in, science.  This is unfortunate, for the research that does exist has uncovered gendered patterns of scientific learning that warrant greater attention.  For example, studies have showed that in certain learning situations, girls communicate differently than do boys, follow directions better, are less likely to be exploratory and inventive, and are more likely to collaborate with other students (Jones et al. 2000, 760; Diamond 1994, 17).  In addition, in hands-on science learning and science fair projects, girls are more likely to participate in activities involving the human body than are boys, who prefer computers and the physical sciences (Greenfield 1995b, 925; Greenfield 1995a, 735; Kremer and Mullins 1992, 42-43).  In addition, girls in science competitions are more likely to create projects based on library research, while boys undertake experimental research (Greenfield 1995a, 735).  Inside and outside the classroom, older girls, most notably vocationally tracked high school students of color, may not feel welcome in a school’s science community because of (both related and unrelated) social and emotional marginalization (Brickhouse and Potter 2001, 965, 970).  At the same time, many gifted high school girls engage with science enrichment experiences at a rate higher than that of boys (Stake and Mares 2001, 1065).  Such informal learning opportunities need to be expanded.  In particular, adolescents need to be seriously invested in designing exhibits and programs (Lemerise 1999, 9).  Wineman et al. quote one teenager (presumably a girl) as saying “the mall wouldn’t have a chance if the zoo cared about us and let us express ourselves” through hands-on projects about environmental degradation, zoo exhibit design, or environmental ethics (1996, 102).  In their quest to inspire girls to consider scientific careers, some museums have taken the more explicit step of creating slick multimedia projects on the work of women scientists, who are presented in these classroom kits as role models (Diamond et al. 1996, 172).

It is not just girls who must be educated differently.  The literature on visitor studies, while not always easily obtained, is vast on the subject of family learning, and researchers in this field are increasingly concerning themselves with gendered learning and gender equity.  For example, in 2001, Crowley et al. published research results that indicate in their study of  “naturally occurring family conversation, parents were three times more likely to explain science to boys than to girls while using interactive science exhibits in a museum” (258).  Crowley et al. believe such an instructional gap is unintentional.  Still, solutions to this problem must be intentional and carefully targeted.  Other researchers have suggested that parents, and especially “underprivileged urban mothers,” can be made more confident about participating in their children’s learning experiences if the informal science experience adopts familiar contexts such as child care or nutrition (Calabrese Barton et al. 2001, 688).

California’s diverse urban communities pose additional challenges and opportunities for educational outreach.  How does a science museum ensure its exhibits speak to everyone, regardless of ethnicity, class, or gender?  In solving such quandaries, feminist science studies takes a decidedly antiracist stance, and seeks to include as many people as possible in conversations about the role of science in multicultural communities.  Some theorists believe that thoughtfully solving “the woman problem” will in large part take care of “the race problem” as well.  As Sandra Harding explains in Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?,

Women need sciences and technologies that are for women and that are for women in every class, race, and culture.  Feminists (male and female) want to close the gender gap in scientific and technological literacy, to invent modes of thought and learn the existing techniques and skills that will enable women to get more control over the conditions of their lives.  Such sciences can and must benefit men, too—especially those marginalized by racism, imperialism, and class exploitation.  (1991, 5)

The stakes are high.  Because they have such a close connection to the public—and often to public schools—museums can serve as excellent launching grounds for such a project, sometimes for no other reason than these institutions have excellent access to young people, whose excitement about and perceptions of scientific endeavors remain malleable.  These students have not yet been indoctrinated into the androcentric notions that pervade much of Western science—notions that serve to oppress vast portions of the world’s population through exclusion from participation in science or policies that endanger the health and lives of specific communities.

We must assess where museums stand now, and what steps they might take to increase the participation of women, and especially women of color, who remain underrepresented in nearly all branches of the natural and physical sciences.


My examination of museums and science centers took me to science museums and centers of varying sizes in both Northern and Southern California.

In order to obtain a representative sampling of California’s diverse museums, I visited seven science centers of varying scales, geography, and foci, ranging from tiny suburban science centers to the megacenters in Southern California.  This was a labor-intensive but fascinating project that required me to use three primary research methods:

1. Close readings of the exhibits and programs themselves, focusing on their assumptions about gender and gendered learning. My training in literature, cultural studies, and women’s studies has taught me how to examine the assumptions underlying a text.  In exhibits, I assumed that informational panels, instructions, and the design of the individual exhibit activities themselves are all texts.  Additional texts that were available to me included curricula, training manuals, and lesson plans for informal science education programs.

2. Interviews with education, program, and exhibit development staff to understand their perspectives on the science centers’ programs and exhibits. Much of the published literature on visitor studies comes from museum professionals and consultants, not from the academy.  For example, one excellent guidebook, Informal Science Learning: What the Research Says About Television, Science Museums, and Community-Based Projects (1994), was published by a communications research company, not an academic or museum press, and yet its content is thoroughly rooted in academic social science.  Another, What Research Says about Learning in Science Museums (1990), comes directly from the Association of Science-Techology Centers.  It was therefore likely that I would learn the most in this project by networking with practitioners of informal science education, rather than with academic theorists.  My first contacts with museum professionals have demonstrated that they have vast networks of useful contacts, and there are several listservs, including at least one dedicated solely to science centers, on which I solicited further contacts and ideas.

3. Participant observation in science education. From November 2001 to October 2002, I worked part-time as a science education specialist at a small science center with an extensive outreach program.  My experiences took me to innumerable elementary schools in more than two dozen cities; these urban, suburban, and rural schools lay between Foresthill and Oakley, Napa and Lodi.  As I note in my introduction, these excursions allowed me to make extensive observations of girls ages 3 to 12.  In October 2002, I transferred into the science center’s exhibits department, where I was responsible for crafting half of all hands-on exhibits and accompanying signage for the center’s 1,100-square-foot exhibition hall.  This position provided me with a broader perspective and deeper understanding of exhibit development and visitor response.

I decided against summative evaluations or visitor studies because the time and resources necessary to undertaking such research would prohibit me from studying more than one or two centers.  I wanted, instead, to survey the interplay of gender with a full spectrum of science center programs—from public outreach to exhibits to staff training.

To encourage honest responses about gender from my respondents, I promised anonymity to all participating individuals and institutions who requested it.  Few people did so.  Because I am now making this information public on this blog, I have elected to remove any information that would allow someone to identify an individual interviewee or the institution for which he or she works.  In some cases, I changed a person’s title to make it more generic, e.g. director of education.  Funding for museums and science centers fluctuates wildly, and while I certainly would like to effect change in some of these centers, I would not want to jeopardize their programs’ existence through my critique.  That said, I do name institutions when I comment on exhibitions open to the public.

A note on terminology:  Some science center staff insist that their insitutions’ exhibitions and programs differ enough from traditional science and natural history museums that they should not technically be called museums.  The difference is that in a science center, “the needs and interests of children are placed before those of the collections” (Caulton 1998m 6).  Because visitors to a science center (as well as academic practitioners!) are just as likely to call it a museum as a science center, I use the terms almost interchangeably here.  Technically, however, most of the institutions I visited are science centers, not museums.

Exhibition Explorations

One great difficulty in exhibit evaluation, especially of the informal variety deployed here, is polysemy.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine how individual visitors or groups will interact with an exhibit or what information they will take away from it.  Informal learning in science centers is largely constructivist in that hands-on opportunities can be undertaken in any order; there is no “correct” path through an exhibition.  Tim Caulton, author of Hands-On Exhibitions, explains:

The constructivist museum accepts that visitors construct their own knowledge based on their personal, social, and physical context for the visit.  Material is presented so that it meets the educational needs of the visitor rather than the subject of the storyline, the social, political, cultural or historical context, or the properties of the object.  In other words, there is no single way to interpret the material presented….Visitors are encouraged to construct knowledge from the exhibit through personal and social interaction. (1998, 37)

This personal and social interaction is spontaneous in nature, but often predicated on traditional gender roles—and, as Crowley et al.’s research shows, boys are often the beneficiaries of this system as far as science content is concerned, while girls are left to fend for themselves.  Because constructivist science centers try to lead visitors through a process of discovery, rather than direct them to a single “answer,” each hands-on exhibit is designed to be “open-ended,” which means that visitors can experiment with the exhibit in multiple ways.  Such open-endedness further muddies the exhibit evaluation waters because not only will the public use the hands-on activity in ways it was not meant to be used, but the museum encourages such use in the name of discovery.

Although the primary audience for many science centers is elementary school children, adults constitute half of all visitors to interactive museums (Caulton 1998, 27).  It is both appropriate and important, then, to participate in exhibits and read labels from an adult’s perspective, while keeping in mind children’s responses to activities.  I have taken this approach in my forays into different exhibitions.

Science education has a long history of sexism.  For centuries, women were excluded from science labs, lectures, and classrooms.  Science textbooks have long used sexist metaphors and made chauvinistic assumptions about women’s bodies. Jaime Phillips and Kate Hausbeck have demonstrated that today’s geology textbooks make assumptions about the gender and race of their readers, and other feminist scientists and science theorists, such as Emily Martin and Polly Matzinger have uncovered sexist assumptions in traditional accounts of the functions of human fertilization and the immune system.  Since they deal directly with human bodies, it is not surprising that biology and other life sciences have been especially gendered in their language and assumptions.  Surprisingly, only one of the science centers I visited had a current exhibit on the human body, although two others did address ecology.  Perhaps these topics are too controversial in some ways, or perhaps they are too expensive to mount, because they require costly anatomical models or the upkeep of live plants and animals.  Maybe science centers still are catering unconsciously to a male clientele—after all, girls may prefer exhibitions on the human body (Greenfield 1995b, 925).

My study of exhibitions showed that exhibits focused on the physical or earth sciences were least likely to make gender gaffes.  The floor of the large Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana, for example, contained dozens of hands-on activities about the physical sciences, including a kalliroscope, a stream table, a magnet wall, a smoke ring generator, a tornado simulator, and a quake simulator.  Casual observations showed that both boys and girls enjoyed the rather physical nature of these activities, most of which went beyond “push-button”  science to engage the visitors more physically.  A visit to the Exploratorium in San Francisco revealed that many of the Discovery Science Center’s exhibits were modelled on activities on the Exploratorium floor.  However, the Exploratorium, with hundreds of exhibits on its floor, was perhaps the most exemplary science center; in the day I spent there, I uncovered not a single assumption about visitors’ gender—not even so much as a reliance on gendered language.

However, the success of these two institutions in creating an environment that is apparently appealing and engaging to visitors regardless of gender does not mean that all physical science exhibits are fail-proof.  A travelling exhibition titled Space Toys at the Discovery Museum Science and Space Center in Sacramento revealed all too well what can happen when an exhibit design team fails to account for gender—as well as fail to provide hands-on activities to enhance visitor learning.  I visited the exhibition, which was designed by the Arkansas Museum of Discovery, on a rainy Saturday, but despite the weather the small exhibit floor was occupied by several families.  To the casual observer such as myself, it appeared that the young girls present had little interest in the displays of space toys, while boys and men of all ages were held rapt by the objects inside the series of glass cases.  While the men pushed their noses against the glass and waxed nostalgic about the toys they used to have, small groups of women and girls tried to figure out how to use the half-dozen hands-on activities included with the exhibit.  Unfortunately, of these, two were broken, one seemed to be missing part of its instructions and was therefore an enigma, and two were little more than push-button and lift-the-panel displays—which, in my experience, fail to engage visitors’ minds and imaginations as much as do truly interactive, hands-on activities.  The other hands-on activity encouraged children to try on child-sized astronaut outfits, although these appeared to be little more than glorified Halloween costumes rather than scientific replicas.  When they grew frustrated with these exhibits, the women and girls moved into the room in which live animals are displayed or into a special room in which visitors could make glitter-filled “space wands”—clearly an attempt to include girls in the exhibit’s content, but I fail to see the science learning in such a task.

In a flyer, the Discovery Museum Science and Space Center claims that “While entertaining your students, this exhibit also educates by meeting California State Standards for Physical, Life, Earth, and Ecological Sciences; as well as Investigation and Experimentation.”  As a former exhibit developer who is familiar with the specific state content standards, I take exception to this characterization.  The exhibit was about material culture and the history of toys, not about space science.  The science center’s staff tried to make the exhibit more scientific by providing visitors with “Search & Find” sheets targeting various grades of elementary school students, but even these sheets are geared more toward boys, with questions about robots, Star Wars, and Star Trek.  While there are certainly girls who enjoy these topics, traditionally these subjects are those with which—thanks to social and cultural conditioning—primarily boys engage.  In an interview, one educator from another institution offered confirmed my fears.  “I teach a living in space class … during the summer time,” s/he said, “and this summer we did notice a particularly small number of girls in the class, and we wondered if there was anything we could do about that, or if we needed to have special programming for girls.  Out of 20 to 22 kids in the class, 5 or fewer were girls.  Space is the stereotypical boys topic.”

It doesn’t help that, with the exception of toys from recent Star Trek series, women are largely not present in Space Toys’s renditions of space travel, and when they are, they must be rescued by men.  Furthermore, the questions provided on handouts to children visiting the exhibition were confusing.  They more about history, marketing, math, and animal adaptation than about the physics and mechanics of space exploration and astronomy.  Who cares which cereal company produced the cereal C3POs, or which Disney character is not on a space ship?  These are marketing questions, not science questions.

An exhibit at the California Science Center in Los Angeles proved equally problematic.  I recall first viewing Mathematica: A World of Numbers and Beyond during my childhood, when the museum was still known as the California Museum of Science and Industry.  I was fascinated then by the cube of lights that could do multiplication problems punched into its keypad by visitors.  I was too young to understand the multiplication, but I enjoyed the spectacle, and I recall being amused as well by the miniature roller coaster that glides around a Mobius strip.

Mathematica was a permanent exhibit from 1961 until 1998, when it was taken down and rehabilitated into a travelling exhibition.  The introductory text on the exhibition wall proclaims that “Mathematica was one of the first truly interactive exhibitions.  Even today, it remains influential.  It won the hearts of teachers and students during its time at the California Science Center.”  Visitors and museum professionals alike have been effusive in their praise of Mathematica, which was designed by Charles and Ray Eames.  In Planning for People in Museum Exhibitions, Kathleen McLean heralds the exhibition as one of the first truly participatory exhibits.  “Mathematica,” she writes, “has not only withstood the test of time (it is as contemporary and attractive today as [it] was 30 years ago), it has also inspired exhibit planners around the world” (1993, 94).

My experience with Mathematica was decidedly different.  In contrast to most participatory exhibitions today, approximately half of Mathematica’s “activities” are sealed behind glass.  This physical removal from visitors was not the most disturbing portion of Mathematica, however.  The exhibition features an extremely large timeline that runs along an entire wall of the exhibition, from ceiling to floor.  Although allegedly depicting the history of mathematics, the timeline fails to name even one woman, even though many women have contributed to mathematics.  A political timeline at the foot of the larger history names only Queen Elizabeth and Joan of Arc.  I mentioned the paucity of women to another female visitor, and she admitted she had noticed the omission and was troubled by it as well.  The panel listing the creators of the timeline mentions only one woman.  Clearly, the exhibit was designed by men for men.

Perhaps most disturbing, however, were the cartoon drawings surrounding the cube of light bulbs.  These cartoons illustrated various mathematical concepts by employing humor.  In illustrating that (A + B) + C does not necessarily equal A + (B + C), each lettered variable was personified.  A and C were men, while B was a woman passed between them.  In depicting the woman as an object to be passed between two men, the exhibition denies women agency of their own.  They are objects, not subjects or practitioners, of mathematics.

The California Science Center exhibit staff did redeem itself, however, with the exhibition across the hall from MathematicaThe Creative World, a multi-story exhibition, presented physical science problems and asked visitors to solve them.  Among dozens of other activities, visitors could learn about new technologies designed to make cars safer, produce sounds by making objects vibrate, and learn what structures were most likely to survive an earthquake.  Best of all, the Creative World exhibition labels and signs told visitors they “have the power” to solve scientific quandaries by using their creative powers.  The exhibit was textually and physically very empowering, and it was clear the activities engaged children and adults of both genders.  However, I did notice a few of the activity components, such as cranks, were difficult to move, which may exclude the participation of girls and women, who traditionally have less upper-body strength than do men.

The World of Life gallery at the California Science Center was also impressive, for, as in The Creative World, the exhibits introduced visitors to complex concepts through hands-on activities.  These activities were not as physically interactive as those in the Creative World gallery, but graphical representations of people depicted humans of both genders and many ethnicities.  As in The Creative World, labels introduced visitors to male and female scientists of various ethnicities through panels on their work and photographs of the scientists.  Such positive representations of professional female scientists cannot but help encourage girls to consider practicing science themselves.

An exhibition at Explorit Science Center titled Insides Out: How Your Body Works also did a fine job of presenting biology unbiased by gender.  However, boys and girls did use some of the activities differently from one another.  A mannequin at the entrance of the museum floor contained a long tube on which visitors could tug; the tube was several yards long, representing the combined length of the short and long intestines.  The mannequin was female and wore a polo shirt bearing the museum logo.  While both boys and girls seemed to enjoy the designated activity at this station, the older boys also persisted week after week in fondling the mannequin’s breasts, often in the presence of their teachers, parents, and female classmates.  Such a gesture certainly objectifies women, and might make girls on the floor uncomfortable.  Still, the exhibit development staff (I wasn’t yet a member of it) for that exhibition is to be commended for their efforts to bring the female body onto the exhibition floor in a novel way.

Another exhibition at Explorit, titled A Day in the Lab, explored the methodology of science through hands-on activities and through introductions of individual scientists through brief interviews on exhibit panels.  As at the California Science Center, the exhibition staff made a concerted effort to include both male and female scientists, which again is commendable.  The more positive representations of female scientists, the better the chances that girls will be inspired to take charge of science themselves.

Another life science exhibit, Traits of Life at the Exploratorium, introduced visitors to a wide variety of animals, and asked the kind of open-ended, philosophical questions favored by feminist theorists but often not asked publicly by mainstream science.  A label near a hydroponics exhibit, for example, shared these musings:

Human beings have a unique relationship to the world.  We’re part of it, yet we are compelled to reshape it for our needs and desires.  Should we probe, contain, and manipulate living things just as we do metal, glass, and plastic?  What does this need to reconfigure nature say about our relationship to the world around us?  If life is seen through a lens of technology, what is the focus of that view?


During the course of this project, I have conducted a series of interviews with administrative and front-line educational staff at most of the science centers I visited.  The interviews allowed me to gauge professionals’ everyday awareness of gender dynamics, as well as informally assess their knowledge of research on gendered learning.  The questions I asked during those interviews are listed in an appendix.

My initial findings suggest that the administrative-level staff at these science centers are aware of the difficulties in getting girls involved in science and have a passing familiarity with the literature on girls and informal science learning, but are often unaware of any solutions to the problem, short of long-term programs that cater to girls or having women as well as men present their educational programs.  An underlying assumption of many of my interviewees seemed to be that gender was a problem, but one that had been addressed adequately in the 1980s and 1990s, while reaching “underserved” communities (read: the poor or people of color) was their current audience goal.  Unfortunately, small science centers generally lack the funding to develop and implement long-term programs to serve either girls or students of color.  Meanwhile, relatively few larger centers have developed programs that cater to girls.

Providing staff members of both genders, as well as addressing gender in staff training, was a concern to most of the educators and administrators I interviewed.

One director of education said her main concern is getting staff to consider the topics with which boys or girls may be most comfortable, and then using that knowledge to better recruit girls into programs that will introduce them to new experiences.  “We do discuss gender,” she explained in an interview, “as far as knowing we want as many girls to sign up as boys do.”  Her first step is to recruit staff that is diverse: “Lots of skin colors, different languages, males and females, age differences.  There’s something to having someone other than an older woman, someone you’d think of as a traditional teacher, doing the education,” she said.  During staff training for summer programs, she said,

we’ll remark upon the fact that boys will be more comfortable with tools, whereas girls may think it’s a challenge and others may not want to participate.  For a lot of newcomer kids who are used to being in anther country, in another culture, there are stigmas involved in doing things that guys are supposed to do, such as working in a machine shop or handling a specific tool.  Ironically, the girls are often much better at handling the tools than boys are.  Girls are better at not barreling into things in middle school like the boys are.  When we go over safety issues, guys don’t hear the safety concerns and aren’t as good at implementing them.  Girls don’t feel as confident, but might be more thoughtful.

“We don’t by any means have the girls working with female staff members, and boys with male staff members,” she continued, “but if a female student feels more comfortable with a female staff member, then that’s fine.  It’s much more organic, and the idea is, the opportunity is there.”  She emphasized that during the summer programs, when kids and instructors need help with a particular tool, instructors will sometimes deliberately seek out a woman to explain the workings of the tool, in an attempt to demonstrate that men and women are equally competent in the machine shop.  For students as well as visitors, she said, it’s inspiring to see girls and women using potentially dangerous machinery.  “Our programming is open for people to observe,” she said, “and the kids using the belt sander or the table saw are in full view of the public.  It’s a little interesting to see a 12-year-old girl with goggles on at a bandsaw.”

It’s not just visiting girls who benefit from this participatory approach to science.  The Exploratorium boasts a world-famous program for high school exhibit interpreters, the Explainer program.  According to a booklet on the Explainer program,

‘Explaining’ can involve anything from an in-depth discussion of scientific phenomena to showing a child which button to push.  The Explainers’ primary job is to help visitors use and understand the Exploratorium’s exhibits and the principles behind them.  On a typical day, an Explainer will spend four to seven hours out on the floor playing with the exhibits, and approaching visitors to offer suggestions, assistance, or explanations.  (Klages 1995, 6)

The Explainers’ training adresses the diversity of visitors to the Exploratorium, and encourages participants to think specifically about both race and gender.  Through a series of role-playing exercises, “the Explainers begin to be aware of other people, and themselves, in a new way,” Klages writes (13-14).

I spoke with someone involved with the Explainers about the experiences of girls in the program.  This staff member emphasized that both male and female participants gain much-needed work experience and social opportunities through the program, but nonetheless said s/he believed girls’ experiences in the program were slightly different than the boys’.  S/he said that girls are responsive to the materials, and are often communicative and articulate going into the program.  They know how to help people, and are excited to learn new things.  “Some are not confident about science topics,” the program representative said, “but with a little coaching they gain more confidence…. Some girls don’t get involved unless asked, however they always have an opinion, so that’s where the coaching piece comes in.  Girls are not necessarily afraid of science, they’re not necessarily interested in science, but like what they’re learning and how they’re learning it, and that it’s different from school.”  The entire process of engaging with new subjects and people increases girls’ confidence, which leads them to offer opinions more frequently, s/he said.

The motives for joining the Explainer program are a diverse as the girls themselves.  “Some join to gain friends.” s/he said.  “Others want to take on new responsibility.  Some do this to get a good recommendation for science.”   Girls, however, are less likely to remain with the program for more than one or two sessions.  During their opportunity to be rehired for a second session, s/he said, half of the candidates for rehiring are male and half are female.  “Usually everyone wants to come back the second time,” she said, “but the third time the girls want to move on.  And I think that’s because the boys are a little behind the girls.  The girls get want they want and move on.  And the guys are more content to be where they are.”

A director of a smaller science museum said s/he has explicitly brought up gender in educational programs at staff meeings.  Four years ago, the center noticed that its summer science camps were composed overwhelmingly of boys.  Accordingly, the program tried to recruit and retain more girls by training the staff on questioning techniques and exercises that may better engage girls with the subjects at hand.  S/he said the mentality of educators in the past had been “Keep that boy busy, the little girl will keep herself busy…. We get more boys with learning challenges in summer camp than we do girls.”  The boys, therefore, may be more demanding of attention.  The staff decided to include some arts and crafts projects—traditionally considered a feminine activity—to attract and engage more girls.  The tactic worked.  The director said, “We found that during those art and craft projects that supported the programs that more questions came from the girls than from the boys about the topic.”

In addition, the director explained, she recruits families into her efforts to retain girls:

We’re actively talking to the parents.  Do you think your girl will be back next year?  What would you like to see more of?  We ask the girls, too:  What did you like most?  What did you like least?  Girls wanted more labs.  Boys wanted to blow up more things, be with the leaders more.

This same director worked for many years in a different role at the California Academy of Sciences, where, s/he said, convincing parents that science was worthwhile for their daughters was key to getting girls into programs.  “At the Academy,” s/he recalled, “we had the Junior Academy, which a program for children up to 15 or 16.  We were noticing that when we offered courses that were involved with physics or chemistry, we got few girls enrolling.”  A typical class for 7- or 8-year-olds, for example, had two girls in a room of 16 children.  The problem, s/he said, was that parents selected classes for their boys and girls, and tended to select classes based on what boys or girls traditionally were supposed to enjoy.  When the Academy offered all-girl classes, s/he said, “we filled those sections in chemistry, physics, and the earth sciences classes.  We increased our numbers of girls in those classes and were still able to fill the open enrollment classes.”

Educated parents are indeed interested in gender equity, said the director of a project targeting girls at an urban science center.

Years ago as a parent, I had a son before I was affiliated with [the science center], and I enrolled him in some programs at other science centers, and I was always struck when he would be in classes where it was predominantly boys, and none of the programs seemed to care, and the other parents didn’t seem to care.  But I didn’t want my son in classes where he was only in the presence of other boys.  To me it really mattered.  To me it’s really significant that on [the science center’s] part they do something about it.  You do a real disservice to girls and to boys if you don’t try to address gender equity.

The director of another small science center was quick to point out that one of the institution’s greatest strengths as far as gender is concerned is that the staff of the museum is overwhelmingly female, with the entire educational staff constituted by women at the time of the interview.  This gendering of educators is important in informal science education, where, as s/he noted, “parental involvement can be very powerful in turning girls away from science.”

These educators are indeed in an excellent position to serve as role models to girls interested in science.   In discussing her significance as a role model, one educator at this same small science center noted that “kids ask me all the time about my education.  To them, we know everything about science.  I had a little girl come up to me after a lesson and tell me she wants to teach science.  She didn’t even know that was an option before I showed up.  Every scientist you see on TV is male.”  It is important to note, however, that these female educators have themselves fallen out of the science pipeline by accepting relatively low-paying, educational (as opposed to research-based) jobs at a nonprofit institution.  All of the educators I interviewed in my first round of questions had degrees in science, and all expressed interest in eventually returning to mainstream science, either by securing laboratory or research positions, or by returning to school to pursue graduate degrees.

Their background in science has served these educators well, not just as teachers of science, but as keen observers.  All of my interviews with science center staff were enlightening, but those with front-line science educators at this particular small science center were the most so.  Although these science education specialists were not familiar with the literature on gender and science, in their hands-on experiences they have noticed the same things academic researchers have.  They made many comments about adults’ interactions with boys and girls, noting that boys tend to get more attention from teachers, volunteers, and parents in both the exhibits and classrooms because the boys are more likely to be disruptive or to use the exhibits in ways they were not intended.  Girls, one educator observed, could be counted on to work quietly—and usually in pairs or small groups—to do “the right thing.”

These educators also noted that socially, outside the museum girls are not encouraged to explore and be active as much as are boys.  Boys are encouraged, for example, to explore subjects that many adults might find “gross,” such as tearing apart owl pellets or coyote scat to find rodent bones, or to examine the tiny creatures that live in pond water.  One educator noticed this dissuasion of girls carries over into classroom expectations; girls, she noted, are less likely to raise their hands in all grades, but their participation in question-and-answer sessions declines precipitously in the fifth and sixth grades.

My interviewees were reluctant to compare informal science learning with classroom education, preferring not to say whether they found one or the other more effective.  However, as Caulton points out, classroom learning

is constrained by the rigidity of the curriculum, by time and by a lack of resources—all of which prevent children from fully exploring their environment.  The interactive exhibition, on the other hand, is rich in artefacts and exhibits with which to explore and experiment, whilst visitors can follow their own interests, unconfined by the clock or the bell, for as long as their concentration lasts.  (1998, 19)

In addition, as the director of the program for girls at the urban science center emphasized, “definitely we see so much about gender stereotypes still being played out in the classroom.  I think in a lot of ways it’s what the kids bring into the classroom because of their own experiences or their own stereotypes and expectations.  So I think in many ways that gender inequity is still alive and thriving in the classroom.”  Programs like the one s/he heads are working to change those assumptions.

Alternative Programs

There are, of course, alternatives to traditional, one-hour classroom outreach programs, exhibit-based lessons for school groups, and interaction with casual visitors during public hours.  Science centers may develop slightly more formal programs that meet over an extended period of time with the goal of getting girls to engage with science and stick with it through high school, college, and beyond.  Two particularly promising programs for girls, Techbridge and FIRST, have been undertaken through Chabot Science Center.

Techbridge acknowledges that most computer technology for young people is designed with boys in mind.  “Take a look at computer games or course offerings and you’ll find that most are designed for boys,” proclaims Techbridge’s web site, “Consider the image of computer scientists portrayed in the media and you’ll also find it isn’t likely to attract many students—girls or boys—to technology”  (techbridge.asp).

Hosted before and after school at five middle schools and three high schools in Oakland as well as at the California School for the Blind, Techbridge provides an important bridge between middle school and high school by helping girls make decisions about how to develop their technology skills inside and outside of school.  The program also works to dispel the image that computer scientists are exclusively male or nerdy by providing the girls with access to professional women who rely on technology in their careers.  These women also steer students toward internships, college preparatory programs, and financial aid.  In addition, Techbridge trains teachers how to engage girls with technology in the classroom (techbridge.asp).

One expert on science centers who has also considered girls and science believes that Techbridge has had a significant impact on girls’ acceptance of science and technology in ways that schools cannot.  Still, that does not mean teachers are not interested in the subject.  “Teachers are too busy,” s/he said.

We’re finding that the girls have great gaps in their understanding that can’t be filled by their counselors because of financial difficulties at the school sites.  The professional development and networking that we’ve been able to support for our teachers has always been very welcomed by the teachers, even though it’s at the end of the school day and they have so much on their plates already; we’ve heard that for many of them it’s the best part of their day.  They want to stay at school because of Techbridge.

Chabot also hosted FIRST, Female Involvement in Real Science and Technology, for a few years under a grant from the National Science Foundation.  In this program, girls and teachers at elementary schools, middle schools, and the California School for the Blind learned to work together as they planned and executed hands-on science activities.  Afterschool clubs of 10 to 35 girls met two or four times each month.  According to FIRST’s web site, “Within the group setting, girls played with building blocks, tinkered with tools, made solar ovens, and observed crayfish under microscopes.” Although the science center’s funding has expired, several schools have continued their participation in FIRST (first.asp).

The National Science Foundation has funded several other programs that sought to involve girls in science, some hosted by museums, others by schools, and still others by nonprofit organizations.  It is not within the scope of this project to discuss such projects, though museums and science centers certainly could borrow ideas from the most successful of these programs and integrate them into their own outreach.  My research makes clear, however, that science centers are particularly well-suited to develop and implement these programs.  Staff at these centers are generally highly educated (many hold masters’ degrees or Ph.D.s), care passionately about the public understanding of science, and have the creativity and talent to create exhibits and programs that reach new audiences.

Improving informal science education and improving access to scientific careers, then, is a matter  of renewing interest in gender at science centers, of foregrounding the needs of girls as well as those of boys.  This means increasing funding to science centers, and especially to those willing to devote staff time to developing greater opportunities for girls and young women.  Admittedly, during a recession (and during the Republican administration during which I researched this paper), such funding can be difficult to come by (Sadker and Sadker 1994, 37).  However, until we prioritize girls’ science education, students will continue to see science as a bastion of whiteness and masculinity—a perception that harms everyone.

Did you like this post?  If so, consider bringing me onto your staff. I’m looking for a challenging career position in a museum or similar institution, but at the moment I’m also available for consultation on education, equity, and staff professional development.   View my CV and contact me: leslie -at- museumblogging -dot- com.


Interview Questions for Museum Professionals

The conversational flow of each individual and group interview determined follow-up questions, which may not be listed here.

1.  What is your own background in science?  What was your major in college and/or grad school?

2.  How familiar are you personally with research and theory on gender and education?  How familiar would you say your staff is with this literature or discourse?

3.  How much do you think science centers or museums in general take into account research on gendered learning?  Does your science center consider such studies while developing programs?  How so, or why not?

4.  Has your science center ever partnered with girl-centered organizations such as the Girl Scouts?  How and when?  What was the result of this collaboration?  If your science center has not, why not?  Is there interest in such a partnership?

5.  Have you noticed girls responding differently than do boys to your museum’s exhibits and classroom programs?  Have you made any observations about how parents and teachers treat children of different genders in your science center’s exhibits?

6.  Do you think informal, hands-on science learning opportunities benefit girls more than do formal science learning opportunities?  How so, and why?  If not, explain your experiences.

7.  In any of the science center’s staff or volunteer training programs, is special attention paid to girls or women?  Why or why not?

8.  Do you think there is any connection between the presence of female science educators and girls’ greater interest in science?  What is the gender breakdown of your department’s staff?

9.  Do many teenaged girls or young women intern or volunteer here?  In which departments?  Do you make a special effort to recruit girls or young women to science-centered activities (versus, say, marketing or admissions) at the museum?

10.  For museum staff with science or engineering degrees: Did you yourself have formative experiences in science centers or museums that engaged you with science and inspired you to pursue a scientific field in college?

11.  Any other thoughts on gender and science education?

12.  Do you know of any science centers that offer outreach targeted specifically at girls, so that I might contact them?

13.  Would you prefer that I keep your name and/or your institution’s name anonymous in my research report?

Works Cited or Consulted

Note: interviewees’ names have been removed from this list.  I conducted 12 interviews with staff members of science centers.

Arkansas Museum of Discovery.  n.d.  “Exhibits for Rent: Space Toys.”  10 Dec. 2002.

Borun, Minda, Margaret Chambers, and Ann Cleghorn.  1996.  Families Are Learning in Science Museums.  Curator 39, no. 2: 123-38.

Brickhouse, Nancy W.  2001.  Embodying Science: A Feminist Perspective on Learning.  Journal  of Research in Science Teaching 38, no. 3: 282-295

Brickhouse, Nancy W. and Jennifer T. Potter.  2001.  Young Women’s Scientific Identity Formation in an Urban Context.  Journal of Research in Science Teaching 38, no. 8: 965-80.

Calabrese Barton, Angela.  2001.  Underprivileged Urban Mothers’ Perspectives on Science.  Journal of Research in Science Teaching 38, no. 6: 688-711.

California Science Center, Los Angeles.  World of Life, Creative World, and Mathematica.  28 Aug. 2002.

Caulton, Tim.  1998.  Hands-On Exhibitions: Managing Interactive Museums and Science Centers.  London: Routledge.

Chabot Space and Science Center.  n.d.  “Techbridge: Encouraging Girls in Technology.”  10 Dec. 2002.

———. n.d.  “FIRST: Female Involvement in Real Science & Technology.”  10 Dec. 2002.

Crane, Valerie et al.  1994.  Informal Science Learning: What the Research Says about Television, Science Museums, and Community-Based Projects.  Ephrata, PA: Science Press.

Diamond, Judy.  1994.  Sex Differences in Science Museums: A Review.  Curator 37, no. 1: 17-24.

———.  1996.  Multimedia Science Kits: A Museum Project on Women Scientists and Their Research.  Curator 39, no. 3: 172-187.

Discovery Museum Science and Space Center, Sacramento.  Space Toys.  16 Nov. 2002.

Exploratorium.  Traits of Life and other permanent exhibits.  10 Nov. 2002.

Explorit Science Center, Davis.  Insides Out and A Day in the Lab exhibitions.  Winter and fall 2002.

Greenfield, Teresa Arámbula.  1995.  An Exploration of Gender Participation Patterns in Science Competitions.  Journal of Research in Science Teaching 32, no. 9:735-48.

———.  1995.  Sex Differences in Science Museum Exhibit Attraction.  Journal of Research in Science Teaching 32, no. 9: 925-38.

Harding, Sandra. 1991.  Whose Science?  Whose Knowledge? Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Jones, M. Gail et al.  Tool Time: Gender and Students’ Use of Tools, Control and Authority.  Journal of Research in Science Teaching 37, no. 8: 760-83.

Klages, Ellen.  1995.  When the Right Answer is a Question: Students as Explainers at the Exploratorium.  San Francisco: The Exploratorium.

Klages, Ellen and the Exploratorium staff.  1999.  Facilitating the Framework.  San Francisco: Exploratorium.

Kremer, Kristin Benne and Gary W. Mullins.  1992.  Children’s Gender Behavior at Science Museum Exhibits.  Curator 35, no. 1: 39-48.

Lawrence Hall of Science, Berkeley.  Within the Human Brain, Math Around the World, and Elephants.  23 Nov. 2002.

Lemerise, Tamara.  1999.  Changes in Museums Benefit Adolescents.  Curator 42, no. 1: 7-11.

Longino, Helen E.  1987.  “Can There Be A Feminist Science?”  Hypatia 2, no. 3: 51-64.

Matzinger, Polly.  n.d.  “The Real Function of the Immune System, or Tolerance and the Four D’s (danger, death, destruction and distress).”  9 Dec. 2002.

McLean, Kathleen.  1993.  Planning for People in Museum Exhibitions.  Washington, DC: Association of Science-Technology Centers.

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.  Discovery Center exhibits.  28 Aug. 2002.

Phillips, Jaime and Kate Hausbeck.  n.d.  “Just Beneath the Surface: Re-reading Geology, Re-scripting the Knowledge/Power Nexus.”  9 Dec. 2002.

Sadker, Myra and David.  1994.  Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls.  New York: Touchstone.

Serrell, Beverly, ed.  1990.  What Research Says about Learning in Science Museums.  Washington, D.C.: Association of Science-Technology Centers.

Stake, Jayne E. and Kenneth R. Mares.  2001.  Science Enrichment Programs for Gifted High School Girls and Boys: Predictors of Program Impact on Science Confidence and Motivation.  Journal of Research in Science Teaching 38, no. 10: 1065-88.

Wineman, Jean, Craig Piper, and Terry L. Maple.  1996.  Zoos in Transition: Enriching Conservation Education for a New Generation.  Curator 39, no. 2: 94-107.


  1. […] of my research methods, more details from interviews, and deeper background on the topic, visit Museum Blogging.  For the purposes of the paper I was writing, I interviewed many science center employees, but […]

  2. […] Although the primary audience for many science centers is elementary school children, adults constitute half of all visitors to interactive museums (Caulton 1998, 27).  It is both appropriate and important, then, to participate in exhibits and read labels from an adult’s perspective, while keeping in mind children’s responses to activities.  I have taken this approach in my forays into different exhibitions.  What follows is an excerpt from a longer essay; to read more of my reflections on exhibitions, visit that post. […]

  3. […] During the course of this project, I conducted a series of interviews with administrative and/or front-line educational staff at most of the science centers I visited.  The interviews allowed me to gauge professionals’ everyday awareness of gender dynamics, as well as informally assess their knowledge of research on gendered learning.  Again, these are excerpts; you can read more about these interviews at Museum Blogging. […]

Speak Your Mind