Skipping the DYI Makeup at Makerfest 2016

I should have guessed that the rocket would end up on the roof of the library… chalk it up to enthusiasm. I was so excited by building a rocket with my 10-year-old daughter that I didn’t consider the possibility that it would shoot up 40 feet. I just didn’t expect that from a paper rocket propelled by a bike pump.

Building the paper rocket and launching it with the PVC/bike pump launcher was the highlight of Makerfest 2016 that was put on by the Lafayette branch of the Contra Costa County Library a few Saturdays ago.

My youngest daughter and I spent hours coding in Scratch, making Gak, painting, crafting, creating structures out of marshmallows skewered with toothpicks to test seismic worthiness, and building paper rockets. (My oldest daughter was working the event as a volunteer)   

The rise in the number of Makerfests and other Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM/STEM) events is a positive sign that the importance of developing skills in these areas is becoming clear to parents, teacher, and the community at large. The work of groups like AAUW and Girl Scouts that’s driven the rising presence of so many girls at these events is particularly exciting. But, in terms of changing attitudes about girls owning a place in STEM, recent experience shows that there’s still work to do.

Our local Makerfest boasted an impressive mix of girls that looked easily 50/50. Girls definitely outnumbered boys at the Snap Circuits and other engineering tables. The organizers did a fantastic job of blending art into the science and engineering components with things like Scribble Bots and shoebox guitars.

All that said, we got off to a shaky start. When my 10-year-old daughter and I arrived, we checked in at the welcome desk. The very nice volunteer who greeted us then asked my daughter if she’d like to try the DIY makeup table.

“Ah, no thanks. I’m looking for the coding room, please?”

That’s my girl!

I truly appreciate the volunteers who take time out of their lives to make events like Makerfest possible. And, I’m sure the lady was only trying to offer something she thought my daughter would like, but my daughter is an engineer and wanted to get elbow deep in building and coding.

I couldn’t help wonder how many little boys the volunteer pointed toward the makeup table.

There’s no shortage of studies, like the one in the Harvard Business Review, showing that both men and women are often biased against girls and women in STEM. The dangerous thing about  biases is that they’re often subtle and can affect us even when we’re trying to do something nice.

The volunteer at the welcome table was a very nice lady who was trying to point my daughter toward an activity that she thought my daughter would enjoy. The problem was that she chose to recommend an activity that her own bias told her that a girl would enjoy – because girls like makeup.

It was an innocent slip and the very presence of the volunteer showed her commitment to promoting STEM/STEAM topics, but the experience highlighted the need for constant vigilance against gender bias in STEM.

It’s our mission to boost those low numbers of women and people of color in STEM fields and events like Makerfest mark growing and positive efforts in driving interest. But, we have to make sure that when our kids do pick up STEM subjects they don’t face biases that  hold them back.

How was your last Makerfest?