How can schools and teachers encourage young women to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)? Let’s look at a few real-world examples of ideas and programs that have proven successful for some classroom inspiration.

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Dismantling Gender Stereotypes

Gender stereotypes and cultural reinforcement of those stereotypes are still alive and well, as Caroline Vander Ark points out. While building kits like Legos are marketed for boys, kitchen play sets and dolls are clearly packaged and intended for girls. Vander Ark emphasizes her intention to encourage her daughter to pursue all types of play and educational interests, backing that encouragement up with the physical enablement via tools and toys that inspire investigation into technical subjects.

Blair Blackwell, for example, leads an organization making a difference in STEM teaching for girls: Techbridge Girls. Blackwell points to research indicating that students decide as early as second grade whether they are good at or enjoy STEM-based subjects. She stresses the societal roles girls are expected to play — popular, pretty, or cool girl — noting that STEM is usually unrelated to these roles.

Female Role Models

Blackwell also emphasizes the importance of role models to getting young women to want to continue pursuing STEM-related fields, as well as the potential of real-world problems and scenarios in classroom settings to better facilitate connections between theoretical and actual applications. And she points to the need for a “collective effort from the private sector, foundations, STEM education providers and government.”

Girls Who Code‘s mission is “To close the gender gap in technology.” Though that may seem like a lofty goal now, consider what’s at stake. If fewer than one in five computer science graduates are women, but the IT field is the future of U.S. industry, the gravity of the situation should become clear.

STEAM-Based Classroom Projects  

Perhaps another part of the puzzle lies in our tendency to arbitrarily separate subjects like art and biology, rather than seeing them as various parts of the same puzzle. With project-based learning that emphasizes the arts and humanities (STEAM), rather than focusing solely on science and math-based subjects, students begin to make connections that they may not ordinarily make in, say, chemistry class.

In addition, we can encourage local public administrators who work with city councils on behalf of public education to advocate for STEM-based school programs and technology that inspires students to learn more about science and technology.

Take, for example, Nao: a talking humanoid robot that teaches computer programming, literacy, and logic — among other subjects. It’s multi-subject teaching tools like this that encourage curiosity and interest in STEM-based fields at an early age, before students begin being distracted by societal and peer pressures.

STEM Equity Legislation

Somewhat recently, Janine Ingram argued for a STEM version of the Title IX regulations passed in 1975 to ban funding discrimination towards women’s sports teams. The relative absence of female role models and mentors in STEM fields isn’t helpful to those who do wish to advance in the field. As Ingram states, “Companies need to be able to attract and maintain great employees!” Introducing this type of legislation is something that has been discussed but never pursued in earnest, but it may be time to change that.

Targeted Outreach at All Grade Levels (K-12 & College)

Catching students’ interest early on and then following through with that interest at the college level may be the key to inspiring more girls to pursue STEM-based subjects throughout their academic careers. Take Ariel Anbar, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. He utilizes interactive and role-playing video games to tap into problem-solving skills, logic, and reason — connecting humanities-based subjects with science concepts to make technology more appealing to a greater number of students.

Private Grants & Fellowships

Private foundations have a role to play, as well. For example, the Association for the Advancement of University Women (AAUW) has awarded $100 million in fellowships and grants to women since 1881 — 43 percent of which have gone to support women in STEM fields. Their playbook on diversifying the STEM workforce — deemed the Gender Equity Game Plan — offers concrete strategies and actions that have been shown to increase the representation of women in engineering and computing fields.

All-Girl STEM Organizations

Another technique that has proven successful is creating all-girl organizations, clubs, and competitions that encourage young women to work together in a supportive environment absent of the distractions of co-ed learning spaces. Girls of Steel, for example, is an all-girl robotics competition, and Circuit Cubes teaches students about circuitry. Giving young women this exclusive space helps them feel more supported and less alone in their STEM interests; in fact, according to George Kantor, co-founder of Girls of Steel, over 90 percent of girls who compete in Girls of Steel go on to pursue STEM-based subjects at the college level.

Nate MacDonald, co-founder of Circuit Cubes, argues that personal invitations, collaborative efforts, and real-life applications are all crucial components to getting more girls involved in engineering. It seems that the social component is vital to keeping girls interested in STEM-based subjects.

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It seems clear that the takeaway from successful efforts to get more girls interested in STEM is that we will need a clear, collaborative effort between teachers, school districts, government officials, private foundations, and corporate organizations. But some of the strongest forces keeping young women from wanting to pursue STEM-related subjects are nebulous and difficult to pin down.

They are the subtle societal implications and influences that see men as the default gender for more technical subjects. To combat these forces, we must talk about gender bias in the classroom and fight for equal representation in all fields. Perhaps upholding efforts that have been successful will aid us in finding blueprints to guide us forward into the future.

But the effort will require all of us to speak up when we notice lack of female representation in our tech companies and science-based industries. With awareness, there is hope.

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