How can teachers help girls in STEM develop their skills and find their place among peers in these male-dominated fields?

Educators and researchers have tried addressing the issues surrounding girls in STEM by attempting to identify roadblocks faced by female students and cultivate interest among young ladies. According to the United States Census Bureau, only 14 percent of engineers and 26 percent of computer professionals are women. The data regarding female mathematicians or statisticians and life scientists – at 45 and 47 percent respectively – are higher than the numbers reflecting female engineering and technology counterparts, yet these are still lower than male peers. While the career statistics regarding girls in STEM remain low, young women have been found to score higher than boys in areas like engineering and technology literacy.

Exceeding Expectations of Girls in STEM

Recently the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released its findings from the inaugural 2014 Technology & Engineering Literacy (TEL) assessment that measured the competency in these subjects of eighth-grade students in the United States. One of the more fascinating findings from the study is that, despite lack of representation in technology and engineering, girls scored higher than boys during the assessment.

As girls in STEM have proved their proficiency, why do they remain underrepresented in undergraduate programs and careers? Karen Horting, Executive Director & CEO for the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) works to ensure worldwide support for female engineers and technology professionals. In this role, Horting has uncovered the root of the problem regarding the small population of girls in STEM.

girls in STEM“Too often, girls are inadvertently discouraged from pursuing a path that leads to a career in STEM. Most of the time parents, teachers and other influencers don’t even realize the unconscious bias is taking place, making it more important than ever to educate on this topic and make changes in how we encourage and educate girls.”

Before examining how to promote girls in STEM, teachers must reflect on their own treatment of girls when teaching these topics. In 2015, Nobel laureate Tim Hunt was criticized following the World Conference for Science Journalists for his suggestion that labs should be segregated by gender to alleviate distractions caused by “girls in science” due to scenarios in which “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry,” according to The New York Times. While the sexist comments led to Hunt’s professional downfall, he stood by his beliefs, apologizing not for making the statement, but for doing so in a room full of journalists.

Fortunately, few teachers intentionally convey these types of messages to students, but educators must still reflect on their own biases and how they might impact their interactions within their classrooms. Teachers must take an honest look at things like how often they call on boys versus girls, the type of feedback they provide to each gender, and the effects these tendencies might have on their students.

Studying Female STEM Role Models

girls in STEMAs advancements toward greater inclusion of girls in STEM are made by Horting and other female STEM pioneers such as GoldieBlox founder, Debbie Sterling, and math-whiz celebrity Danica McKellar, girls are gaining access to valuable tools and receiving inspiration from previous generations. By changing the face of STEM, these women are serving as role models for female students who are interested in these subjects. Though raising awareness, by bringing this issue to the forefront of cultural conscientiousness is important, educators must also do their part to promote STEM among female students.

“We are making strides,” says Horting. “There is STEM curriculum being developed specifically for girls, there are coding and technology camps for girls growing across the country, and there are organizations like SWE offering events and programs to nurture and cultivate girls’ initial interest in STEM. But there is still a lot of work to do. The interest exists – girls are showing an interest in science and technology, but it drops off as they grow older. It’s our job to feed that early curiosity and encourage these girls to reach their fullest potential.”

STEM Girl Power

When discussing STEM pioneers in class, educators should take note whether they are highlighting only men such as Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Albert Einstein. If names including Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, and Ainissa Ramirez are not covered, it’s time to update lessons to include female STEM leaders. When an educator discourages female students during STEM lessons, shows their doubt regarding girls’ abilities in these subjects, or simply excludes groundbreaking female STEM leaders from lesson plans, these valuable pupils who have limitless potential could be lost to careers they’ve been told are more suitable for their gender.

Educators should also be aware of the resources available to help female students excel in STEM. Whether a teacher provides helpful resources in class or suggests tools for extracurricular study, the seemingly smallest gestures can mean a world of difference for girls in STEM. And a STEM workforce with greater diversity will benefit us all.

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