The National Science Board reports the U.S. is a nation at risk if it does not develop more STEM talent. Where are we going to find that talent?
The answer is among women.
For years, teachers and administrators have been aware of the relative lack of female representation in STEM professions. The time is now to actively promote girls’ and young women’s engagement in STEM subjects and careers, especially in the areas of engineering and computer science.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women receive approximately 60% of all undergraduate degrees (associate and bachelor’s), however, they remain underrepresented in many STEM professions. Catalyst provides an excellent snapshot of the gender gap in STEM education. While women receive 60% of biology and biomedical science degrees and 45% of mathematics degrees, less than 20% of engineering and computer science (and information science and support services) degrees are awarded to women. And, for women of color, the discrepancies are even greater. Asian, Latina, and Black women earn 5%, 4%, and 3% of all STEM undergraduate degrees, respectively. Clearly, we’ve got some work to do in education to inspire more women to pursue STEM degrees.
Start with girls.
The good news is girls’ schools have been doing this work for many years. Girls’ school educators have made tremendous progress in identifying and removing barriers that discourage girls from engaging in STEM-related pursuits. And, they have been busy smashing myths about traditional gender roles. Girls’ schools are experts in how girls learn best, and they are the experts in how girls learn best in STEM. The Center for STEM Education for Girls at Harpeth Hall and the STEM Consortium promote five best practices for educating girls in STEM. These practices form a framework for schools to use both in classroom instruction as well as in messaging to parents, trustees, or anyone interested in promoting girls in STEM:
1. Taking Risks
Encourage girls to take risks, teaching them that failure is not only ok, but also an exciting opportunity to learn. Then, convince them to try and try again. In this social media age when online influences can drive crippling tendencies to project unrealistic images, girls must learn that experiencing failure is far more valuable than being perfect. Reshma Sunjani, CEO and Founder of Girls Who Code and a keynote speaker at the NCGS From STEM to STEAM: Girls’ Schools Leading the Way Conference, says it well, “we must teach girls to be Brave, Not Perfect.”
2. Inquiry-based/Project-based Learning
Engage girls in inquiry-based and project-based learning. Girls thrive when given hands-on opportunities to learn. Asking driving questions like, “Do you want drones delivering packages to your front doorstep?” is essential to kick starting this instinct. Then have them discuss and explore the possibilities. Have them build, fly, and test a drone to discover how technology impacts our daily lives. Thinking through solutions in an open-ended, results-oriented way appeals to the way girls’ reason. The possibilities they will consider and the variety of solutions they will attempt will be inspired and limitless.
3. Tying Learning to a Higher Purpose
Girls need to know why their work matters. Tying learning to a higher purpose is a way to connect girls to their work by invoking empathy. Ask a boy to write code for a new app and he will take on the project for the sake of the challenge. Ask a girl to do it, and she will want to know “why?” and “who will it help?” Sixth grade girls at Harpeth Hall recently collaborated enthusiastically on building a water catchment system for a community in the eastern Congo, because they understood its community impact. The time and energy saved to gather water could not only reduce the workload on women and girls, but also allow girls the time and opportunity to go to school.
4. Building 3D Spatial Skills
Begin building girls’ 3D spatial skills early in their education through hands-on learning and specialized curricula. Research by Dr. Sheryl Sorby shows there is a gap between boys and girls in 3D spatial reasoning, which often prevents girls from progressing in STEM subjects. The gap can be closed. Start early, perhaps in art class. Help girls see the relationship between 2D images and 3D objects. Converting art sketches or paintings into models, building with Legos, or using hand tools in the garage are examples of how to begin bridging the gap. Also, consider adding Dr. Sorby’s curriculum into your own.
5. Connecting with Role Models
Girls must be able to see themselves in STEM majors and careers. Introduce students to professional female role models. Undergrads, graduate students, and women STEM professionals are hungry for opportunities to connect with girls. At Harpeth Hall’s STEM Summer Institutes, students meet with female STEM professionals such as an electrical engineer, a professor of civil and architectural engineering, a chemical engineer who is an international security policy specialist, an astrophysicist who studies museum science, and a biomedical engineering Ph.D. candidate. These women represent diversity in experience, expertise, background, race, and ethnicity.
These five best practices have proven to be a successful framework to engage more interest in STEM education for girls and can be a critical tool in closing the STEM gender gap. As we celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, let’s remember to work together on this important challenge—one girl at a time.