How We Can Solve The STEM Gender Gap One Classroom at a Time

by Matter & Form on August 14, 2019

Advancements and innovations in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are crucial in solving the world’s biggest problems and challenges. However, an alarmingly low number of girls are likely to pursue these subjects in school and their careers afterwards, with fewer than 1 in 5 women graduating from computer science programs. And the gender gap in computing is getting worse. In 1995, 37% of computer scientists were women, but today, it’s only 24%.1 As long as half the population is less than fully represented in STEM-related fields, the economy and our society will be deprived of brilliant minds and diverse perspectives that can help to drive innovation and solve the world’s toughest problems.

But the good news is that even small shifts — both at the school wide, and classroom levels — can make a big difference in the way girls gain exposure to and experience STEM. Here are five ways we can solve the STEM gender gap one classroom at a time:

1. Give Girls Hands-on Experience with STEM

The most obvious solution to getting girls more interested and engaged with STEM careers is to expose them to STEM education in the classroom at an early age. At its core, a STEM curriculum favours a more experiential type of learning, where students build their knowledge of science, technology, engineering and mathematics through hands-on exercises.

Rather than focusing on filling out worksheets and completing textbook exercises, where many students can easily become disillusioned with math and science before they’ve had a real chance to engage with these subjects, a STEM-based curriculum embraces creativity and tactile exercises to cater to a variety of different learning styles.

From exercises like science experiments and engineering bridges out of popsicle sticks to advanced exercises built around computer coding, 3D scanning, printing and modelling, STEM lessons can give girls exposure to STEM through compelling, hands-on activities.

What Educators Can Do:

  • Introduce STEM at an early age, to get girls into an analytical, inventive and creative mindset as soon as possible.
  • Make interactive teaching tools such as 3D scanners, VR goggles, and robotic Legos a part of your classroom curriculum to enhance hands-on learning. Click here to read our blog post on the top 5 STEM technology tools changing the classroom today.
  • If your school has a limited budget or a rigid curriculum, provide girls with the resources and the encouragement to pursue STEM clubs and activities outside of the classroom
  • Propose and encourage STEM-centric field trips to science centers, museums, planetariums, university campuses, botanical gardens, etc.

2. Show Girls the Value of STEM

Girls want to have a positive impact on the world, and even tend to gravitate towards helping professions. However many don’t realize the value and context behind STEM careers. While young girls might hold the vague notion that engineers “design and build things”, children have an inherently limited understanding of why engineers are so crucial and how they really help people. And while there’s a more obvious connection of how professions like doctors or veterinarians help people and animals, educators need to make it more clear for students how biomedical engineers, for instance, do just as much to help people and animals through work like designing knee braces and other medical devices.2

As it just so happens, STEM learning is largely about designing creative solutions for real-world problems. And when students of all genders and backgrounds learn within the context of authentic, problem-based STEM design, they can more clearly see the genuine impact of their learning.

What Educators Can Do:

  • Debunk myths about STEM careers with a narrative about their relevance to real-world problems.
  • Point out the ways that engineering, coding and other STEM careers solve challenging problems and improve people’s well-being.
  • Use real-world, problem-based lesson plans to reinforce the underlying value of STEM. From creating a model of habitation on an alien planet to illustrating human evolution, these 6 detailed lesson plans are an exciting and effective way to implement STEM learning into any classroom.
  • Decorate your facilities with posters and displays that highlight the creative possibilities in STEM subjects
  • Discuss the fascinating, important jobs that people do with STEM education.
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3. Teach Girls to Be Brave, Not Perfect

In the 1980s, psychologist Carol Dweck looked at how bright fifth graders handled an assignment that was too difficult for them. Her findings: bright girls were quick to give up, but bright boys on the other hand found the difficult material to be an exciting challenge.

Since girls routinely outperform boys in every subject, including math and science at the fifth grade level, these findings are clearly not a question of ability. The key difference is in how boys and girls approach a challenge. Girls are more likely to get discouraged, while boys get energized.3

With this in mind, we desperately need to create environments where girls feel that asking questions, discovering new things and even failing are essential, positive parts of the learning process. And with a STEM curriculum, that’s exactly what you get.

Teacher Markus Hartnett undertook a 3D printing project with fourth and fifth graders, where students were heavily immersed in the task of building a prototype, revising it, testing it and gathering feedback from fellow students. The students’ mission was to colonize a new planet, and they came up with clay designs and put them into 3D software. With extremely positive results, Markus stated that “3D printing is a great tool to ease the fear of failure, as a student can design a prototype, see how it works and, if it fails, they can modify their design and print another one. Even engineers at the professional level have to deal with failure and adjustment.”4

What Educators Can Do:

  • Support all aspects of the learning process — including questions and failures.
  • Empower girls to ask questions about the material and its relevance to their lives.
  • Let students know they don’t need to have the right answer right away; the important thing is seeking it out and discovering it!

4. Showcase Female Role Models

Girls and young women have a hard time picturing themselves in STEM careers. And if the stereotypical image of what a programmer looks like is bearded man in a hoodie, then who can blame them?

Young girls need individuals they are more likely to relate to if they are to be persuaded not to abandon their STEM potential.5 Seeing women who work in STEM-related fields can help to remind and encourage girls that they too can have a place in these fields if they want it.

Luckily, there are many organizations who are already working to bridge the gender gap in the tech industry. Girls Who Code, Django Girls, Kode with Klossy, just to name a few are headed by strong female role-models who are changing the image of what a programmer looks like and does.

What Educators Can Do:

  • Inspire students with videos and posters featuring female role models.
  • Find and share articles about women and students who are pursuing STEM.
  • Invite female STEM professionals to visit your class and provide information to students.

5. Create a Community of Support

Despite findings that demonstrate women engineering students perform as well as men, women are more likely to switch majors than men because “they don’t believe that their skills are good enough and they don’t feel like they fit in engineering.”6

Self-efficacy — one’s belief that they can succeed in a domain — plays a big role in the gender gap issue of the tech industry. According to Reshma Saujani, CEO and founder of Girls Who Code, girls typically pursue domains they feel they are competent in, and avoid domains (like math and coding) that they perceive themselves to be “bad” at. Despite strong research that there is little to no difference in boys’ and girls’ average ability in STEM, girls have much lower self-efficacy ratings in these types of subjects.7

The classroom environment, full of fellow students and headed by an encouraging teacher, has the real potential to positively influence young girls. Girls who feel supported by teachers and parents will show more interest in continuing with STEM in their future learning.

What Educators Can Do:

  • Support and encourage girls who show an interest in STEM.
  • Provide school counselors with info and resources for supporting girls in STEM.
  • Keep an eye out for girls losing interest in STEM subjects and find out why.
  • Talk with parents about the role of STEM knowledge in future careers and the importance of support and encouragement at home.

Embrace STEM Learning in the Classroom Today

As Brad McLain from the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) put it, “closing the STEM gap isn’t up to the students alone. It’s up to us — to change our behaviors, strategies and systems so that these classes and careers reflect the diversity in our communities.”8

Integrating STEM-based learning into the classroom can have lasting benefits for young girls, giving them the exposure and confidence to pursue STEM careers later on.

To find out more about a well-rounded STEM education, visit our blog or browse our website today.

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Sources:

  1. Girls Who Code, About Us
  2. EiE, 5 Strategies for Closing the STEM Gender Gap
  3. TED, Teach Girls Bravery Not Perfection
  4. American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 3D Printing Engages Students in STEM
  5. The Guardian, Bridging the gender gap: why do so few girls study Stem subjects?
  6. Mark Crawford, Engineering Still Needs More Women
  7. Reshma Saujani, Brave Not Perfect
  8. Microsoft, An action guide to help close the gender gap in STEM
Check out our Teaching Resources
Teaching tools, resources and lesson plans, for free.
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