Anyone who’s ever worked in a middle school or raised an adolescent, will nod and smile when Lauren Wester says her middle school-age students make her laugh every day. “There isn't a day that goes by without a student saying or doing something that cracks me up,” she claims, adding, “I also feel like they are in this magical in between; their brains are developed enough to understand jokes or sarcasm, but still open to and reliant upon adult help. It feels like I’m truly helping shape them.”
Ms. Wester teaches 7th grade life science and 9th grade forensic science in a large suburban school district. Her teaching targets range from fun and focused learning to serious life skills that reach beyond the classroom out into the community and global society.
She explains, “My students are diverse in so many ways - we have students on free-and-reduced lunch and others that travel to Europe over spring break. I love this about my school - we serve so many populations, but all come together as one community.”
When it comes to her teaching zone - science - Wester lights up with extra energy and enthusiasm. “My favorite part about teaching science is opening kids' minds to the idea that all science starts with just asking ‘Why?’ Sometimes these questions are big, like ‘Why do scientists believe the Big Bang happened?’ and sometimes small, such as ‘Why does my stomach growl?’ I like teaching students how scientists think, and encouraging them to use evidence as a basis for making a claim. It's definitely a fun and challenging way of thinking!”
As a professional woman in the field of science, Wester has powerful perspectives to support girls in her science classes and encourage them to pursue college studies and future careers in STEM. So, let’s shift into the STEM gear and girl power lens for more interview inspiration:
Do gender differences impact your teaching? If so, how?
Lauren Wester: For the record, I use "girls" in these responses as those that are female or those who identify as girls. I would not be speaking about this topic responsibly without first pointing that detail out. That said, I work hard to encourage girls in the room any chance I get, and I also must be vigilant about pointing out gender bias. I make it a point to tell girls "You ask good questions and seem to enjoy experiments. If you want to be a scientist when you are older, you could be.” It also means having serious conversations with girls when they claim, "I am bad at science." I don't want any kid to think this about themselves, regardless of gender, but it stings more when a girl says it. To illustrate an example of gender bias, when we watched a video on cell theory featuring a bunch of cartoon Caucasian men working on microscopes, I point out and ask why there are no women or people of color represented in the video, and how the idea that only white men do science has taken centuries to overcome. It may seem small, but these little opportunities for teaching about race and gender are important if we want students to think about these things too.
What’s a typical message you share with girls in general?
LW: I always remind girls, “Do what makes you happy and always work hard.” This applies to school work, college paths, friendships, relationships, and so on.
What’s one message you give girls interested in science?
LW: A typical message I give girls interested in science is to keep taking science classes and electives in high school. This is a tangible, concrete thing they can do that will reveal which sciences they enjoy versus those in which they have less interest.
How do you provide support or extra encouragement to girls in the sciences?
LW: I’m president of the board for Girls United MN, which is a girl’s empowerment group led by Hopkins High School girls serving younger girls in the district down to fourth grade. The girls host STEM Sunday every spring for girls, grades 4-6, and I am one teacher, among many other amazing women science and math teachers who lead a session. This past February I did a lesson on microscopy. I also participate in a summer field biology program at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center offered through community education. I encourage girls to attend both events so they can see that science is fun!
What advice would you give to a new teacher regarding gender differences in STEM studies or overall academics?
LW: I would tell any new teacher (or new STEM teacher) that they need to make an extra effort to encourage girls to explore what they like, and always reassure girls that if they work hard, good things will likely come their way. It’s not enough to just believe these things in your heart or mind - it’s important to express them explicitly. Girls in STEM do not have the same role models that boys have historically had, so all teachers should try to identify, research, and discuss women in science. Don't shy away from the gender conversation; silence on the topic does more harm than good.
What’s something you would share with administrators about girls and science education?
LW: I would remind administrators that girls in science education need extra opportunities beyond the classroom. I’ve heard some administrators say there are equity issues surrounding "girls only" events, and I understand that concern. I also think there are creative ways around that - opportunities should not be denied to groups who have been historically marginalized.
Do you have any anecdotes that highlight the impact of supporting girls in education and science career paths?
LW: This spring I had a student say she wanted to be a computer scientist, and that she heard as a girl she might be able to get more scholarships in college if she chose that path. The boy next to her said that girls can do whatever they want, it's not anyone's problem that there are less women in science than men. This led to a discussion between the three of us about why women have been excluded from science until relatively recently. Supporting girls in education and science is also about teaching boys about the challenges marginalized groups have faced. Everyone is gaining something through the conversation.
Wow - this is some impressive teaching and learning! We honor teachers who are leading the way with professional engagement and research-driven instruction. Ms. Wester is one of our Learners Edge educators who definitely practices what she preaches. Thanks, Ms. Wester, for showing us your girl power!
If you’re interested in learning more about STEM instruction strategies or gender differences in the classroom, check out the following Learners Edge courses:
- Course 5080: Making the Shift to STEM Education
- Course 738: Gender Matters: How Boys and Girls Learn
Also, coming soon - 2 new STEM course options:
- Course 5071: Farm to Table...STEM Instruction...And Everything in Between
- Course 5073: Water Quality Instruction for Teachers: Good to the Last Drop