As educators and industry professionals race to inspire students to pursue STEM careers, it seems there is an under representation of females in this effort. As STEM initiatives literally explode across our national, regional, and local scenes, they are reaching girls and boys at a different rate.
And while the STEM field is the second-fastest growing occupation according to a Georgetown University study, we are still struggling to entice enough qualified students to pursue passionate careers within the STEM designation. This raises the obvious question: where is the disconnect?
The National Science Foundation estimates that about five million people now work directly in STEM fields — just over 4 percent of our workforce. Think about how much of our economic innovation and productivity depends on that small percentage of workers.
Our nation will have more than 8.6 million STEM-related jobs available in 2018, and three million of those jobs may be unfilled – or at least unfilled with American citizens. The National Math and Science Initiative points out that we already rely heavily on foreign-born workers to fill the leaks in our STEM pipeline.
Women can fill that gap
Currently our K-12 students are talented enough in math and science to fill our rapidly growing need for STEM workers. However, more than 75% of those talented students do not enter STEM majors in college.
Where will our nation get the workers to meet the needs of the STEM workforce? Here’s an idea: What about recruiting, educating, and employing women? Keep in mind that I’m not making this suggestion from a “poor persecuted girls” mentality. Frankly, this is a clear-cut issue of finding enough home-grown talent to meet our STEM needs.
Where are the women and why aren’t they there?
So, why do we have so few girls in STEM areas now? An AAUW publication, appropriately titled Why so few?, asserts that cultural factors play a strong role in suppressing girls’ enthusiasm for STEM fields. Makes sense to me. How we think about ourselves plays an important role in who we become. Societal beliefs that boys are better than girls in science and math are a real drag on girls ‘achievements and interest in those two subjects — and, consequently, in engineering.
Success in recruiting girls seems to boil down to girls believing that they can succeed in STEM fields and wanting to succeed. So here’s our K-12 mission if we care to accept it:
Create an “I can do it” learning environment in middle grades classrooms and in homes. Change that damaging mindset to the belief that girls and boys are equally capable in math (they are). With an improved belief in their abilities, the difference in performance between boys and girls essentially disappears.
So how do we make it happen?
How can we create the atmosphere, culture, and mindset that will involve more girls in STEM? Something practical and doable, if you please. In an earlier blog post, STEM Girl Power, I listed 6 things teachers can do to help engage girls in STEM. I’d like to suggest these additional 6 ideas in this post.
(For a more in-depth discussion of these and other ideas on girls and STEM, check out the resources at the end of this post. Most of these ideas come from them.)
1 – Provide girls with constructive and safe feedback about their performance in STEM areas. Emphasize the strategies they use while they are learning, as opposed to simply telling them whether they got an answer correct. Encourage them to correct misunderstandings and to learn from mistakes. Above all, allow them to learn, struggle, and grow in a risk-free environment. Point out that we don’t learn so much from what we do right – it’s what we do wrong that gives room and opportunity to grow. Then give them that chance.
2 – Expose middle grades girls to female role models who work in STEM fields. In a previous post I suggested this link to shine a spotlight on extraordinary young role models and their exciting projects. Use every chance to promote positive beliefs regarding women’s abilities in math and science.
3 – Involve middle school girls in spatial skills training. There does seem to be a gender gap in spatial skills needed for performance in math and science. However, research shows that this is a relatively easy gap to close. PBS learning media provides videos and lesson plans to help with spatial skills.
4 – Create a classroom that sparks curiosity and fosters long-term interest in STEM. All middle schoolers should love digging into STEM adventures, explorations, and challenges. Not all girls (or boys) like focusing on machinery, however. Be sure to include real life challenges in other areas such as health, life sciences, environmental challenges, forensics, and so on. Most importantly, use inquiry, inquiry, and more inquiry – combined with a search for solutions to real problems – as your basic teaching/learning approach. Maintain the “fun factor” as an avenue to learning.