My colleague and I walked into a room filled with a dozen fifth-grade girls snacking on pretzels and huddling around a LEGO robot they had named Kitty. Two of them were laughing about the goggles they had made out of robot wheels, while another small group crowded around a laptop to program wheel rotations. The rest attempted to drive Kitty through what looked like an obstacle course.
It was our first glimpse into life as mentors for the Girl Scouts of Western Washington's LEGO League, a competition that combines programming LEGO Mindstorms robots, team project planning, and creative problem solving to get kids excited about science and technology.
It was fun and a little nerdy. It was also nothing like the school projects I remember. I was eager to work with girls in this age range, because studies have shown that elementary school girls are just as interested in, and as good at, math and science as boys are. Unfortunately, their involvement and confidence in these subjects decreases dramatically by high school (PDF). As woman working closely with the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, I jumped at the opportunity to mentor a troop of girls. I hoped to inspire their explorations and be their cheerleader when the going inevitably got rough. Additionally, I wanted to witness their early enthusiasm as part of my investigation into why female engagement in STEM fields is lacking and what we, as designers and program creators, can do about it.
Where STEM Fails Today
While there's clearly no silver bullet that will suddenly create gender equality in STEM, we first need to figure out where STEM is falling short today. For example, many studies suggest that women tend to value doing work that contributes to society (PDF) and prefer careers with clear social purpose.
The question surrounding many of the debates about girls in STEM seems to be, "How can we encourage girls to be more interested in STEM?" But what if we flip the script, asking instead, "How can we apply STEM to problems that are interesting to girls?"
Unfortunately, most STEM courses and programs today fail to connect with these types of broader social impacts. Instead, they emphasize accomplishing specific technical feats:
- Goal: program your robot to move five spaces.
- Goal: build the strongest bridge out of these materials.
What if these programs shifted their focus from the technical to the impact? Not only could modifying the subject matter attract more diversity to STEM, it could also help ensure that future technologies are more empathetic to a wider range of human needs.
What We Can Do About It
How do we go about helping policy makers, educators, and larger industries make connections to broader social impact? Design thinking, as a problem-solving approach, incorporates techniques for addressing these complex issues and developing innovative solutions. The following are several steps of the design thinking process that can help us frame new solutions to decreasing the gap for women in STEM:
Empathize: Develop empathy for girls' experiences
A core tenet of design thinking is developing deep empathy for the people at the heart of the problem that you're trying to solve. Field research, observations, and contextual interviews help us explore important questions like:
- What do girls' daily routines look like, and how might they impact participation in STEM?
- What social, cultural, economic, and emotional undercurrents are at play?
Considering these factors helps us figure out what types of solutions to design, increasing the likelihood that those designs will be successful.
Contextualize: Incorporate the big picture
Design thinking also encourages us to consider the broader context of the problem. By zooming out and gaining a different perspective, we can begin delving into the complicated social and cultural roles that different family members, teachers, coaches, classmates, public figures, marketing campaigns, public policies, and institutions play. To get a better idea of the context, we ask questions such as:
- Who serves as an influencer, and who serves as a barrier?
- How might we address changing their perspectives or behaviors while simultaneously designing solutions that specifically address girls?
Rethink: Ask disruptive questions
When we approach a problem through the lens of design thinking, we try asking new questions that push the topic's boundaries in an effort to find scenarios and solutions that we may not have considered before. In this case:
- How might we help girls have more confidence in their STEM abilities?
- How might we encourage more industries to consider the long-term implications of gender messaging?
- How might we involve more males in gender inequality discussions?
Such questions help us avoid narrow-minded fixes that focus only on encouraging girls' interest in STEM rather than considering the broader range of important factors.
Iterate: Fail early and try again
An ongoing cycle of designing, prototyping, and testing is essential to design thinking -- and none of these should happen without input from the people at the heart of the problem. Designers looking to close the STEM gap should always involve girls, women in STEM fields, parents, teachers, and other relevant participants in any brainstorming sessions and interactive workshops to envision new solutions with the people who would actually be using them. Then, using techniques like sketching, storyboarding, and paper prototyping, we can quickly test our assumptions, gather feedback, and revise our approach (or scrap it entirely). This kind of low-fidelity prototyping allows us to fail early with minimal costs, learn from it, and begin again from a new and more informed mindset.
Programs Leading the Way
So how can we make STEM more appealing to girls as they move into middle and high school, when participation is likely to decline? Similar to LEGO League, Techbridge and Project H are other programs headed in the right direction. Techbridge's outreach programs give girls the opportunity to learn about STEM through hands-on projects that are often rooted in philanthropy. Project H's youth-led public design projects are rooted in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math, helping kids connect what they learn in school to what they can do in the real world. Programs combine hands-on tinkering, design guidance, and inspiring female leaders who empower girls to build solutions and address problems within their communities.
Blending Empathy With Technicality
Increasing the appeal of STEM fields to women is key as technology becomes increasingly integrated into our lives. By asking the questions outlined above, we can design programs and products that appeal to girls while empowering them to solve real-world problems, rather than impeding them with barriers of technical knowledge. After all, the more diverse perspectives we incorporate into building future technologies and scientific advancements, the more meaningful and thoughtful experiences we can all enjoy as users.