Six Shows to Get Girls Excited About STEM

These great kids shows promote positive role models for women in science.

"Mom, are black holes real?"

"Are golden bamboo lemurs endangered?"

Every day, TV shows spur my daughter to ask questions like these. They've led us to research the extinct Tasmanian tiger and gawk at pictures of space nebula; to watch videos of whale sharks and find the Valles Marineris canyon on a map of Mars.

Now don't get me wrong – I'm not saying that TV is the only reason my daughter loves science. She's always been curious about nature, and having a science-geek family and an awesome science teacher no doubt helps. But TV has harnessed and amplified her natural passion in ways I never could have imagined. TV makes science accessible. It makes science fun. And it reinforces that science isn't just for boys.

Women in science face an uphill battle. According to the US Department of Commerce, women make up roughly half the workforce, but hold less than 25% of all Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) jobs. Studies by both the White House and Franklin Institute suggest that stereotypes discourage girls from being interested in science. The portrayal of characters in media is a big part of that, which is why it's so important to celebrate TV shows that break down those stereotypes.

Here are our family's favorites, chosen for their positive female role models, their educational content and their entertainment value. They get my daughter and my son excited to watch. (And sssh... I love them too.)

Miles from Tomorrowland

Miles from Tomorrowland

Disney Junior's Miles from Tomorrowland is a "spacetastic" adventure the whole family will enjoy. The Callisto family explores the galaxy, solving problems for the Tomorrowland Transit Authority. Family values are front and center, and the show also incorporates strong messages about diversity, good citizenship and teamwork. The science is blended into each episode in an organic fashion, helped along by consultants from NASA and Google. According to creator Sascha Paladino, "We’re trying to find a balance between science facts and the fantastical to inspire kids to learn more."

Mom Phoebe is the captain of the Callisto crew, but it's Miles' sister Loretta that girls will gravitate to. Loretta combats stereotypes by being a well-rounded character with a diverse range of interests that include coding, dinosaurs and Naxos (a mix of gymnastics and martial arts). Her relationship with Miles is refreshingly healthy and supportive.

Read my reviews of Miles from Tomorrowland in Over the Moon About Miles and Loretta and Let's Rocket.

Ratings

  • Princess Power: 5 Stars
  • Overall: 5 Stars
  • Bechdel Test: Pass

Transformers: Rescue Bots

Rescue Bots

The Transformers franchise is probably not the first you think of when it comes to female role models, but Transformers: Rescue Bots features not one, but four strong, intelligent, female characters. The show focuses on a group of Transformer rescue robots teamed up with a family of human first responders.

Instead of the usual Autobot/Decepticon violence, the Bots deal with natural disasters, rescues, and mad science gone awry. Science and tech usually save the day in some fashion, and the rescue team includes a civil engineer as well as a father/daughter team of scientists.

As far as the girls go, Dani Burns is all kinds of awesome as a tough rescue pilot. My daughter absolutely adores Francine, a girl-scientist. "Frankie" may be just a kid, but she's usually the smartest one in the room. And apart from occasionally geeking out about Jules Verne or robotic dinosaurs, she's portrayed as just a regular kid - no awkward stereotypes here. Season four also introduced a female rescue bot, Quickshadow, and gave Anna Baranova a more prominent role as a working mother scientist.

Ratings

  • Princess Power: 5 Stars
  • Overall: 5 Stars
  • Bechdel Test: Pass

Wild Kratts

Wild Kratts

On the surface, Wild Kratts (by PBS Kids) comes across as a boys' show, starring real-life wildlife explorers Martin and Chris Kratt. But look a little deeper, and you'll find that the women in Wild Kratts are equally vital members of the team. Inventor Aviva is usually the one saving the day with her creature power suits, and tech-savvy Koki keeps their ship running smoothly. It's rare for a TV show to have one female engineer – let alone two!

Wild Kratts encourages conservation and a love of nature. My daughter has declared her intention to create a wildlife preserve and search for Tasmanian tigers, and my son is known to shout in outrage at the villains trying to use the animals for their own ends. It's adorable, and they can both rattle off an astonishing array of animal facts thanks to the show.

Ratings

  • Princess Power: 5 Stars
  • Overall: 5 Stars
  • Bechdel Test: Pass

Doc McStuffins

Doc McStuffins

The science in Disney Junior's Doc McStuffins is so subtle that my kids actually argued against including it in this list because "it's not a science show." But medicine is science too, and even though Doc performs her operations on stuffed animals and toys, there are always real-life health lessons to be learned. From donating blood to getting stitches, the show demystifies medicine for kids. First Lady Michelle Obama even stopped by for a guest spot to promote her Let's Move campaign.

Doc McStuffins has the distinction of being the only show in this list to have a girl as its lead character. And while several of the other shows have a diverse cast, Doc is the only one to have an African American lead. She's become a positive role model for so many little girls. Doc is a little girl who wants to grow up to be a doctor – just like her mom. What's not to love about that?

Ratings

  • Princess Power: 5 Stars
  • Overall: 5 Stars
  • Bechdel Test: Pass

Team Umizoomi

Team Umizoomi

I have no doubt that Nick Jr.'s Team Umizoomi gave a huge boost to my kids' math skills. The show portrays preschool math in such an engaging and practical manner that kids can't help but relate to it. Millie, Geo and Bot use their "Mighty Math Powers" to help the citizens of Umi City solve everyday problems. Along the way, kids at home learn counting, patterns, measurements and geometry. I'll probably never get the Do-do-do-dodecahedron song out of my head, but I won't hold that against them.

Ratings

  • Princess Power: 5 Stars
  • Overall: 4 Stars
  • Bechdel Test: Fail

Octonauts

Octonauts

This British import, airing on Disney Junior, is one of my favorites for its deadpan humor and colorful characters. The Octonauts travel the seven seas with the motto: "Explore. Rescue. Protect." It's like Star Trek meets Jacques Cousteau. Each episode features a particular ocean creature, exploring its habitat and abilities.

The female characters are pretty outnumbered, but that didn't stop my daughter from latching onto them with surprising tenacity. Engineer Tweak is always constructing new vehicles for the Octonauts' adventures, and Dashi the wildlife photographer has been featured in several episodes.

The episode where Dashi was swallowed by a whale shark sparked a fit of research and role-play about whale sharks and jellyfish stings. When we were coloring Easter eggs this year, she casually commented about how vinegar was used to help treat jellyfish stings – a fact she learned from Octonauts years ago. The show obviously makes an impact.

Ratings

  • Princess Power: 4 Stars
  • Overall: 5 Stars
  • Bechdel Test: Fail

Looking Forward

Because of my kids' ages, I've focused on shows that appeal mostly to the pre-K and early elementary school crowd. The good news, though, is that there are STEM-friendly shows out there for all ages. More and more are being targeted at girls, which is great.

"Supporting women STEM students and researchers is not only an essential part of America’s strategy to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world; it is also important to women themselves." - White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

If TV can inspire little girls to dream of becoming ballerinas and princesses, maybe it can also inspire them dream of being scientists or engineers. If they're like my daughter, they might even dream of being a ballerina/engineer/conservationist/princess.

Sounds like a great dream to me.

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Mom. Writer. Gamer. Geek.
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