Confident & Capable: Encouraging Girls in STEM

Encouraging girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) activities has been in the spotlight recently, with after-school programs, mentorships, and online resources dedicated to helping young girls pursue their interests. However, a recent study published in Science shows us that there is still work to be done.

Released in early 2017, the study showed that elementary-aged girls, as they grow older, believe that women are not as smart as men. Here’s a brief recap of what the study revealed:

Students were told a brief story about a person who was “really, really smart” and they were then asked to pick this person from four photos (two male / two female).

  • Among 5-year-olds: 71% of boys said the person was male, while 69% of girls said the person was female.
  • Among 6-year-olds: 65% of boys said the person was male and 48% of girls said the person was female.

A group of 6- and 7-year-olds was asked to participate in a game intended for children who are “really, really smart” and a game for children who try “really, really hard.”

  • Girls were less interested than boys in the game aimed at smart kids.
  • Boys and girls had the same level of interest in the game for hard workers.

teacher encouraging girls in STEM with robotics project

The Good News!

The Girl Scout’s Generation STEM report, in partnership with Lockheed Martin, gives us hope for the future of young girls and STEM. Here’s what they found through focus groups and online surveys with girls aged 8-18.

  • Girls like STEM and 74% are somewhat or very interested in STEM subjects.
  • Girls want to know how things work, do hands-on activities, and ask questions.
  • Girls interested in STEM are higher achievers, better students, and have strong support systems.

How Teachers Can Help Encourage Girls in STEM

Elementary and middle school teachers can make a big impact on encouraging girls in STEM subjects. These teachers are especially important as the STEM gender gap normally increases somewhere between a love of science and math in elementary school and selecting a college and career path in later years.

Provide Role Models

It seems that one of the stopping points when it comes to fostering girls’ interest in STEM is a lack of female role models. They hear the success stories of Thomas Edison, Neil Armstrong, and Bill Gates, but often overlooked are the stories of Maria Telkes, Mildred Dresselhaus, and Grace Hopper.

If you’re a female teacher, you can be a role model to your female students. Share your with your entire class (female and male students alike) your own experiences with studying STEM subjects, stories of how curious you were as a child, and your appreciation for math, science, and technology. Discuss the contributions of important scientists, inventors, and pioneers of both genders in classroom lessons. A Mighty Girl is a great resource for finding stories of inspirational women to share.

Even classroom read-aloud time can be an opportunity to get girls excited about STEM. Look for stories that depict young girls showcasing math or science skills. For grades K-2, start with this series of stories by author Andrea Beaty that feature Ada Twist, Scientist; Rosie Revere, Engineer; and Iggy Peck, Architect.

Avoid Unconscious Bias

Often times a girl’s drive is squashed by unintentional biases that are placed on her. “Don’t get dirty.” “You can be the nurse.” “Bugs are icky. Don’t touch!” You can ensure that your classroom is a bias-free zone by implementing the practices outlined below:

Challenge stereotypes when you hear them and address them with the class: “Girls can’t play with the Legos.” “Only boys can be president.” When you hear comments like this, start a conversation with your class.

Look at which students are using what equipment/centers: Make sure there is equal access to games, tools, and learning centers for all interested students.

Avoid instituting boy roles and girl roles: Boys can take notes and girls can lead groups.

Divide groups differently: Co-mingle boys and girls in group work and team projects.

Change your reward systems: Did you provide your class with Christmas gifts? Did you give all the girls one gift and all the boys a different gift? Consider rewards that are more interest-based rather than gender-based.

Call on students equally and draw quieter students into the conversation: Studies have shown that boys, more often than girls, are called on to answer questions and do class demonstrations. Be conscious that you’re not falling into this habit.

Are you joining the movement of encouraging girls in STEM studies? Share your experiences with us!

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