George Lucas Educational Foundation
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As a society, we learn about the world and advance our well being through science and engineering. The United States may be known around the world for its higher education, but compared to many other leading and steadily emerging countries, we lack a strong focus on educating scientists and engineers. One significant reason that we have fallen behind is that we do not encourage our female students to pursue career paths in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).

This needs to change, as the lack of women in STEM will continue to plague our country until all students, regardless of sex, have adequate opportunities to explore math and science throughout elementary, middle and high school. If we want to attract the best and brightest minds into the fields that will move us forward, we must look to all of the population. More women can contribute to our field, and we can help make that happen. Below are a few strategies for how we can help.

Expose Young Girls to STEM

As a country, we stand to gain a lot by exposing young girls to STEM fields and encouraging those who are interested to follow their hearts and minds. Simply focusing attention on one age group cannot cure all societal issues that influence career choices among females. Correcting the negative perceptions that girls develop at a young age can, however, lead them to embrace math and science when they reach high school, rather than avoid the subjects. Administrators and educators must strive to create environments in high school and college math and science programs that are inviting to females if we want to prevent the likelihood of their choosing a different direction. As long as young boys and girls are exposed to science and technology and are equally encouraged to study those disciplines, those with talent and a genuine interest in those fields will be able to develop that interest. Science and technology are and will continue to be important factors in what we are able to accomplish in our lifetimes.

Encourage Participation in Special Programs

More and more workshops are sprouting up nowadays that encourage young girls to maintain their interest in STEM fields. In-school and out-of-school programs are gaining popularity, and in order for that to continue, those of us in STEM fields have to support both local and national efforts to foster girls. Without understanding the opportunities that are available to students of math and science, young women may think they have made a mistake when facing the challenges of completing a STEM major. The good news is that current programs focused on increasing young girls' interest in those fields are tremendous. But without them, there are potential long-term consequences, even for girls who select a STEM path in college.

Support Learning Opportunities in the Community

Popular national clubs such as Girl Scouts of the USA have started to give added attention to introducing girls to STEM. There has been an improved focus on motivating young girls to explore typically male-dominated fields. This shows an important shift in thinking. Today the organization has really stepped up its programs to help ensure that girls succeed in all areas.

Companies and organizations that offer summer internships provide a chance for girls and women to learn more about different possibilities in the STEM fields. Many firms also now offer job shadowing programs or career days. Job shadowing allows those interested in a specific field to follow an individual already working in that field for a day or a given amount of time. This lets the observer see typical job duties and activities, and get a feel for what that job may entail.

Serve as a Mentor

The value of mentorship is irreplaceable. Finding a mentor early on can do wonders for building confidence and translating it into career satisfaction. The people that are chosen as mentors need to have the capacity and capability to lead young people toward success. A mentor is not only someone who is willing to spend time teaching techniques and processes, but also someone who takes an interest in long-term advancement. Mentoring is one of the most important confidence builders that can be found day to day on the job or in school. Teaming with a mentor is a career strategy that can bring huge benefits, especially to women in unbalanced work environments like engineering. Time and time again, the majority of successful women credit their participation in some sort of mentorship for dramatically helping them reach their career goals.

Take Charge and Educate

We're an information-rich society, and every one of us has access to vast resources -- they're available online for any women interested in the STEM fields. Women can visit the websites of multiple professional organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers, Women in Technology International, Association for Women in Mathematics and Association of Women in Science, to name just a few. These resources present a tremendous opportunity to learn a great deal about the field, about what it's like to be a woman in a specific STEM profession, about career opportunities, and so on. While it might not be as enlightening as face-to-face communication with a professional in the field, it will certainly give women an informed starting point from which they can grow.

As women become more prevalent in STEM careers, more and more young girls will begin to recognize the additional career opportunities open to them. With more women in the field, it will become more evident to young girls what they can offer the world.

Have you seen any other success stories where girls are supported in STEM, or are you involved in any directly? Please share in the comments area below.

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Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Encouraging girls to explore the sciences using encouragement and equity will yield many more Madam Curies and Mae Jemisons. A positive word from Teacher always helps, too.

Quentin Donnellan's picture
Quentin Donnellan
High School Calculus/Engineering teacher; part-time software developer

I recently encountered an interesting approach to this problem - creating "all girl" sections of engineering courses:

The results seem to be incredibly promising (and more importantly - replicable). Our school is currently exploring implementing this "all-girls" section approach for next year (assuming we get enough to sign up). I'd be interested to know if others are taking this approach...

Claire's picture

My student teaching experience was completed at a STEM school. Here, all the students, girls and boys, find the joy of science and mathematics. It is very interesting to see how my students comment and assess things differently than peers in other schools in the same district. The girls are exploring and questioning. They enjoy going outside and examining the world around them. They have learned and now commonly use the scientific method when they come across something they do not know. I think that introducing these students, especially the females, to this different way of thinking will really set them apart from their peers and allow them to go far in life.

Denise N.'s picture

Schools in the United States need to cultivate a higher interest in sciences and math among girls by promoting the relevancy of STEM careers, increasing the number of female STEM teachers and role models, and providing all-female advanced math and science classes. Girls and boys learn in vastly differing ways. Boys are spurred on by the challenge of being dominate whereas girls can benefit greatly from a learning environment which focuses on more cooperative activities and are actively and openly encouraged by their instructors.

Charles Thayer's picture

Raising money to establish a scholarship fund for girls or women pursuing studies in STEM would send a strong signal that we want to have more women in these fields. It seems easier to convince someone to "take the STEM challenge" if they don't have to put their academic scholarship funds at risk to give tech fields a try. In an era where student loans are the primary funding mechanism for financing higher education (apart from merit-based scholarships), we are asking candidates to bet their futures in order to focus on STEM. You have to be very sure that you will like it, and that you will make it, to place that kind of bet.

That is one more reason that role models can make such a difference. It is very inspiring to have someone with whom you can identify in the field, who can say, "I have done this. I am successful and happy about my career choice. You can do this, too."

Millie's picture

Quentin, I haven't heard of creating an all girls classroom as a strategy to motivate girls to take these Math and Science courses. To be honest, I don't know how i feel about this. I think that we need to encourage girls to be a part of Math and Science classes that are like the real world and are not separated by gender.

Charles Thayer's picture

Eventually, you want the girls to operate in a real world environment that includes everyone. If it helps girls to get off the ground to have a class in which they can find peer models, study buddies and mutual support until they feel secure in their abilities, I see no reason to oppose that arrangement on principle.

Girls and women will have a lot of opportunities to get used to being in mixed groups (where they will be in the minority until we do things to get them included). If we are serious about recruiting girls and women into tech fields, we ought to be open to experimentation to find ways to help the pioneers to find their way -- and blaze the trail for others to follow.

We will never do this, but we are not going to see more girls in math and tech without measures that look like affirmative action. You have to spend money and do work to make it happen. Wishing and having warm feelings about the idea will not being it about by magic.

Are we ready to do what it takes, and pony up the cash to pay for it? Or are we going to continue to complain that we wish girls would just get over it and get into our fields?

We can do this.

Emily Breakwell's picture

Robogals is a global non-for profit organisation which aims to get more girls interested in STEM fields. Female and male students at 26 Universities around the world go to local Schools to teach free robotics/hands on Engineering activities to girls to motivate and inspire them within these fields.
It's incredible when you see a girl's eye's light up in the joy that 'she can' do it!

Michelle Loretta's picture
Michelle Loretta
Founder of Maker Girls

Thanks for the thoughtful post, Karen! I agree. Special programs and mentors are a must. I think education and deeper exposure needs to start younger than it is currently being offered. (It's one of the reasons why I founded Maker Girls .) There are many programs to spike interest for tweens and teens. But, passion begins at age 5. And, if a girl doesn't have a passion for STEM fields by middle school, it's hard to spark then. Kids are heavily influenced from a young age. Let's get girls to explore the wonders of these fields from the beginning! And, let's do it in a fun collaborative way. And mentors are just as important as peer relationships. We all want to do things with people we like... we want to do things with friends. It's important for girls to be building relationships with other girls in STEM fields.

Sophia Pitcairn's picture

This is exciting to see as I totally agree that exposure and encouragement are vital to get more girls into STEM. There is a boundary that need to be overcome in order to boost confidence. Over on CMRubinWorld we've recently published a similar discussion where Francesca Borgonovi and Marilyn Achiron discuss the psychology behind the gender gap in maths and sciences and ideas for how we can over come it.

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