Thoughts on the Controversy over Carnegie’s “Science that Sparkles” Workshop for Girl Scouts

My educator colleagues at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburg are in the midst of a minor internet brouhaha (see wonkette and jezebel) over some apparent disparities in their workshop offerings for Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, as exemplified by this image that has been making the rounds.

Infuriating, right? Sexist, right?

Well the story is a bit more complicated. A LOT more complicated actually.  Calm your nerdrage for a few minutes and read on…

First off, some context from someone who works in the field.

A science center / museum typically offers a variety of workshop experiences for their visitors, some of which they organize on their own, but a lot of which are done in partnership with other organizations like schools, nonprofits and youth groups like the Girl Scouts. The level of control and management of these workshops can vary from 100% being under the direct planning and execution by the museum to simply being a host for the workshop that is exclusively conducted by the visiting organization, but done on the premises of the museum.

In this case, these workshops simply reflect the requests from the two different organizations — Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts — for specific workshops, related to “badges” earned by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, respectively.  This is an important point that is missed by most people. Girl Scouts of America and Boy Scouts of America are two different institutions.  They have a common history and focus, but they are run and administered separately, and troupes are not integrated in their educational offerings.

As Carnegie explains on their Facebook page, this presents some challenges for them in what they can offer for the two organizations:

The Boy Scout workshops we offer fulfill specific badge requirements set forth by the Scouting organization. A merit badge counselor signs off on requirements completed during the workshops. We offer those programs as a public service to the Scouts in our community who want to complete their science badges….

…Regarding Girl Scout-specific programming, we have struggled when it comes to enrollments. In the past, we have offered engineering, chemistry, and robotics programming for Girl Scouts. We created programming to go along with the new Journeys that Girl Scouts use. Unfortunately, no troops signed up for these. The programs that consistently get enrollments are “Science with a Sparkle” – which teaches girls about chemistry – and our Sleepovers at the museum.

Lots of internet commenters have been complaining that Carnegie should just offer workshops “for all kids” regardless of gender. However even a cursory glance at their program offerings shows that they offer a range of awesome workshops for kids of all ages, for both genders.  Seriously an impressive range of cool STEM offerings that any museum would be proud to be able to offer, from pre-school to teen.

The issue is that Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts don’t pursue integrated educational offerings, and offer different badges for different activities.  You may not agree with that, but that’s really beyond Carnegie’s responsibility, which is to serve as many youth as possible with science education.  As Carnegie Science Center says, any youth on their own can sign up for other workshops they offer, but these reflect the one’s requested by the Scout organizations.

As someone who plans and implements workshops for kids at my museum, I can feel their pain regarding how hard it can be to get girls and boys to sign up for science workshops that transcend traditional gender norms. Here’s what one Brownies leader said :

As the leader of WeePiglet’s Brownie troop, I find myself bashing up against this kind of crap ALL. THE. TIME.

Don’t get me wrong – the Girl Scouts organization does amazing, wonderful things for girls, but the whole schtick is that it’s supposed to be “girl-led” at whatever level is appropriate for the age. And I’ll tell you right now, if I offered my girls the choice between whatever the boys are doing and “Science With A Sparkle,” we are going to sparkle. I can only steer them so much….

One thing I have promised my girls is that we are going to learn Important $%#&, like how to start fires and tie knots and camp and sew and knit and maybe even blow some $%#& up. We’re not just going to make the world a pretty place, we’re also going to run it.

I LOVE THIS.  I would send my imaginary daughter to this person’s troop in a second.

So the real challenge is to how to meet a kid where they are, but also challenge them to do something a little beyond their comfort zone that exposes them to something new that they actually might like. If you force a kid to take a robotics or chemistry workshop because you think its good for them, you can imagine the result. But if you offer a workshop that connects to something the kid is already interested in, and connect it to something larger, that might broaden their interests and help them see the connections between, say cooking and chemistry or sports and physics.

Ironically, badges might be part of the solution as well as the problem.

Those of us in informal learning have been discussing and piloting a variety of open digital badging systems at our institutions to expose more learning opportunities for young people, and allow them to take more ownership of their own learning. Imagine a badge that any kid in your community could earn, regardless of where they were, on computer programming, hip-hop dance, or community volunteering. And was recognized at their library, science center, and school. And that unlocked perks like museum admissions, movie tickets, and e-books.

Girls and Boys Scouts have really paved the way in developing and improving their own badge systems for their respective populations of young people.  And now their are opportunities to build upon their successes to broaden the impact of badges for learning for a digital age.  I’ll write more about this in subsequent posts on digital badging.

Last point: I want to applaud the Carnegie Science Center’s timely and well-considered responses to the issue that they posted online. Too quickly these kinds of issues can spiral out of control online, and before you know it your members, donors, and the general public are crying for blood. I hope that when some misunderstanding like this happens connected to my museum that we respond with such honesty and savviness. Well played, CSC.

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