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1934: A Better Time to Be A Girl Interested in Science?

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Nature Study was the cutting edge approach in American science education. Educational scholars claimed students should “study nature, not books” and education took on a much more practical bent. Some scholars have noted that this approach to science education was much more gender inclusive, that nature study invited more women and girls into the sphere of science. The following images from Science Stories, a 1934 American science textbook, would seem to support the argument that nature study was more inviting to girls. In the past fifty years various science textbooks have come under scrutiny for including only pictures of boys and men in the book’s illustrations. Take a look at the following set of pictures from the book, these representative selections show boys and girls working together, something later books have largely failed to do. If this book is at all indicative of other texts and approaches from the time it would seem to be incontrovertible that Nature Study brought about a much more gender neutral approach for presenting science to children.

Science Stories follows a group of students and their teacher through the four seasons. Almost every page includes a picture, and almost every picture that includes a boy includes a girl as well. In the picture above we can see students in Autumn looking at leaves and twigs. Many of the stories focus on students activities outside. It is also worth mentioning that the science teacher is female.

The gender equity in the pictures follows the students back into the classroom. Many images like the one above show boys and girls workign together, in this case on some sort of diorama. Almost every single image shows boys and girls working together.

Beyond dioramas the gender equity extended to working with scientific equipment (see above) and children working on their homework.

Throughout the book boys and girls work together, collaborating and exploring their natural world. Aside from being a pleasant read, filled with beautiful illustrations, the Science Stories book is an interesting example of a gender inclusive curriculum. While we like to think that science and science education have become increasingly open to women these images, work like Kimberly Tolley’s Science Education of American Girls and explorations of the nature study movement suggests otherwise. It seems that the history of gender in science and science education is much more dynamic than we previously thought.