Seven Ways to Get Girls Interested in STEM

It is widely accepted that careers in STEM fields are dominated by men, and that women and girls do not pursue these fields at the same level as their male peers. Through my research and practices, I want to share seven ways to help girls gain interest in STEM. Read more...

By Jennifer Grauberger, Technology and Media Specialist | Apr 16, 2018
Girls Stem

I am responsible for managing the Makerspace at Momentous School. In our Makerspace, I work with teachers to co-facilitate a STEM experience for students. (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.)

I have been working to make this space more inviting for girls, as it is widely accepted that careers in STEM fields are dominated by men, and that women and girls do not pursue these fields at the same level as their male peers.

Through my research and practices, I want to share seven ways to help girls gain interest in STEM.

1. Make the Space Welcoming

I recently attended a session at the Learning and the Brain conference with Dr. Sapna Cheryan from the University of Washington. The session was about gender disparities in STEM fields. Dr. Cheryan talked about a research study where boys and girls were shown a computer science classroom with objects that are stereotypical for such a space, such as Star Trek posters, soda cans and video games. The students were told that this room was where the class would be held, and then asked students whether they would sign up for the class. Many boys said yes, but few girls did. Next, they showed a neutral classroom with objects like plants and nature posters, and asked the same question. The same number of boys said they’d sign up, but a much higher number of girls were also interested. Her point in sharing this research was that the physical environment of a space affects a child’s sense of belonging. When girls feel like they belong, they’re more likely to pursue something. Stereotypes about where girls and boys belong start very early and have long-term implications.

Our Makerspace is a gender-neutral, fun, colorful environment. Our walls show both boys and girls working, and the space is bright and inviting.

2. Shatter Stereotypes

Another research study talked about first grade students’ perceptions of robotics. Researchers gave students an assortment of items – some robotics, some neutral objects – and students chose what to play with. Even in first grade, boys chose to use the robotics and girls overwhelmingly chose other objects. (Some girls chose to use the robotics but far fewer than boys did.) When asked about it, one girl responded that robots were boy objects. The same students were given a survey to test their confidence in math and science. The girls were equally confident as the boys. Researchers concluded that boys and girls both had equal skills and confidence, but there was something happening as early as first grade that was making girls look at STEM and think, “That’s not for me.” It takes intentional work on the part of adults to shatter these stereotypes by saying things such as, “Nothing is ‘just for boys’ or ‘just for girls’” or, “Everything in this space is for boys and girls.”

3. Identify Your Own Stereotypes

One day I was working with a kindergarten class in the Makerspace. I gave the instructions and the students began working in small groups. I hadn’t noticed that I was flocking more to the boys than the girls. The boys seemed to be having more success with the activity because they were calling me for attention when they finished something. I was sort of following the boys’ lead. When the boys finished something, I gave instructions for the next step. But when I paused and noticed what I was doing, I took a look at the girls. They were just as successful as the boys! They were just being quieter about it. They were equally excited and motivated, doing just as well, and having just as much fun as the boys. I instantly felt bad – look what I could have missed! I really had to call my own stereotypes and perceptions about boys and girls into my attention in order to shatter them. This happens to all of us – we all have preconceived notions about children and their abilities, and sometimes these fall into stereotypes about boys and girls. When we notice them, we can reflect and do better the next time.

4. Start Early

In the study with the children who had already formed stereotypes about STEM, the students were only in first grade. That means they were only 6 and 7 years old – and I’ve heard the same thing from kids even younger than that! I believe that if kids are exposed early enough, stereotypes will change. It’s hard to hold on to a stereotype if you’re never presented with it. If girls always do as well with STEM as boys, they’ll never have the idea that it’s not made for them. Many people think that robotics and coding for young kids is superfluous or unnecessary. But after learning about gender disparities, I disagree. I think it is my role and responsibility to get STEM into the hands of all students in an equitable way.

5. Don’t Limit Potential

When I was a kid, I wanted to play with Legos and G.I. Joes. At the time, my mom told me that those toys were for boys and encouraged me to find other things to play with. As an adult, I see that taking away those toys may have limited my potential. Who knows what I could have learned from playing with Legos? But we don’t want to wait until our students are adults like me to recognize their own potential and shatter the limits that have been placed on them. It’s our job as adults to give boys and girls the opportunity and excitement for STEM fields so that they have every opportunity available to them as they become adults. Not all girls will choose STEM fields, but we want them to have the choice, confidence, skills and excitement should they decide that is the right direction for them.

6. Work with Other Adults

Our Makerspace is very open – basically, any lesson that a teacher is working on that might be enhanced with a STEM angle is a great opportunity to use the Makerspace. I also meet with the teachers monthly to think about new ways that we can give students more ways to learn in this space. In this work with teachers, I also need to be intentional about addressing gender disparities. The teachers are already doing such a great job of making learning accessible for all students in their class, so adding in a layer about how gender sometimes affects a child’s interest and participation in STEM can help them be even more attentive to the girls.

7. Build Excitement

This year I added a large display that shows pictures of students working in the Makerspace. I’ve heard young kids say, “Look, there’s my cousin!” or “I want to do that!” More and more students are excited to try out the Makerspace and are asking their teachers when they can visit. Teachers have been telling me that they’re not sure what lesson would work, but they’re interested in trying something because their students keep asking. In truth, nothing about STEM is better or more fun for boys. I think most girls enjoy tinkering and working with materials, exploring, testing and learning. When we’re able to remove the gender stereotypes and get girls excited about the actual work, they’re more likely to persist.

We have a long way to go, but I truly believe that this group of girls will be the group that shifts the story about what STEM looks like in the workplace. When these girls grow into adults, my dream is that they’ll choose the path that sparks their passion. They’ll know that they have something special to contribute to the world, and they will not feel limited by perceptions that other people have placed on them.