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Halton Waldorf School student Krishna Nair, right, achieved success on her Grade 8 science project with a little help from the Canadian Space Agency and teachers like Stephanie Todman, left.

Glenn Lowson /The Globe and Mail

On a snow-covered field in the winter of 2018, Krishna Nair watched the high-altitude balloon she’d created for a Grade 8 science project at the Halton Waldorf School in Burlington, Ont., crash into a stand of electrical poles. She was crushed.

“I started to cry,” Nair says. “I had worked really hard for this moment and I wanted it to be successful. I wanted to have results.”

But that day ended up becoming the turning point toward a success she hadn’t even fathomed. She got on the phone and started making cold calls to get advice and find out what she had done wrong. Eventually, after enough calls, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) caught wind of her failed science project, and they offered to help. Months later, on a sunny and windy day in August, she had a second chance.

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While historically, young girls have been discouraged from pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), Nair is one of many students who are evening the playing field. With the support, resources and freedom to pursue student-led learning that she received at Halton Waldorf School, Nair’s groundbreaking project was ultimately successful.

And the following summer, about 40 people – including her parents, local children, and scientists from the CSA and France’s National Centre for Space Studies – witnessed this firsthand on a field in Timmins, Ont.

That day, one scientist assisting Nair held up the seven-foot balloon filled with helium. Attached was a 30-foot length of rope with the payload box at the end. The box contained recording and GPS devices and hand warmers to keep the electronics from freezing in the minus-60-degree air on the journey towards space.

The scientists showed her how to line up the box, so that when it caught the wind, it would fly upwards and not forward into electrical wires, as it had the last time.

The crowd was riveted as the balloon was released. Cheers erupted as it soared into the sky and the box lifted up into the air.

“That was a really nice moment,” Nair says. “I watched it finally drift off until it was a tiny little spot.”

The next hurdle was to recover the balloon after it landed an hour-and-a-half away. The next morning, Nair and her family drove out to find it, and after tromping deep in the woods, they located it draped over a tree. Just as they were about to make the trek out of the woods, Nair saw the CSA arriving by helicopter to help. To her delight, they were chauffeured by chopper out of the woods.

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Later on, she discovered the balloon had travelled 30 kilometres into the air, almost halfway to space, where it captured photos of the curvature of the Earth and recorded data from the atmosphere.

Apart from the experiment, she also learned another lesson – that failure isn’t a bad thing. Despite the initial letdown, the result of her hard work was bigger and better than she ever expected.

Stephanie Todman, Nair’s former teacher at the Halton Waldorf School, said that personal discovery was the most important learning aspect of her project.

“The doing of the project is immensely important, but we as Waldorf teachers hope that what the students take away is learning about themselves,” Todman said.

While girls are historically discouraged from pursuing science and technology, students like Nair are evening the playing field.

Glenn Lowson /The Globe and Mail

Nair’s project has since inspired many younger Waldorf students to study science, Todman says. And Nair has since moved onto her next experiment; this year, in Grade 10, she is launching a high altitude balloon into space to gather, in real time, a different set of data she hasn’t decided on yet.

According to the 2017 UNESCO report, Cracking the code: girls' and women's education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, exposing girls to supportive learning environments can increase their confidence and self-efficacy in these areas. Girls in Canada are underrepresented in STEM fields despite representing the vast majority of university graduates, according to a 2011 Statistics Canada study. The study also showed that women are less likely to choose a STEM program in university, regardless of mathematical ability.

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One of the keys to closing this gap is to foster girls’ interest in STEM education early on. Arda Thomson, kindergarten teacher at Balmoral Hall School, an independent girls’ school in Winnipeg, earned a 2019 prime minister’s award for teaching excellence in STEM after transforming her classroom into an exploration station, a science centre and tinkering lab.

“They should really start young,” Thomson says. “They are little, of course, and they want to play, but they’re playing with ideas.”

For example, Thomson’s five- and six-year-old students simultaneously learn how to code as they learn to read. They research important female scientists and sometimes dress in costumes depicting them to tell the story of each woman’s achievements. Instead of doing show-and-tell, they present experiments to the class each week.

“It can be very messy, but I’m at the point where I don’t care anymore what the carpet looks like,” Thomson says. “It’s all about fun learning.”

The 2017 UNESCO report, Cracking the code: girls’ and women’s education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), aims to decipher the factors that hinder girls and women from participating and achieving in STEM education, and how to promote more engagement.

  • The report found only 35 per cent of STEM students in higher education globally are women. Only 28 per cent of all of the world’s researchers are women.
  • Girls are held back by discrimination, biases, social norms and expectations that influence the quality of education they receive and the subjects they study.
  • Supportive learning environments can increase girls’ confidence and self-efficacy in STEM.
  • Female STEM teachers have a positive influence on girls’ performance and engagement with further STEM studies and careers.
  • Girls perform better when teaching strategies take into consideration their learning needs and when teachers have high expectations of them in STEM subjects and treat them equally.

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