According to the National Science Board’s Science & Engineering Indicators 2018 Digest, women account for less than one-third of the nation’s science and engineering workforce. Trends have shown an increase in the number of women in STEM jobs; however, the disparity has only slightly narrowed over the past 25 years. What can we, as educators, do to help girls develop their interests in STEM?
A newly released study done by Microsoft in partnership with KRC Research (https://news.microsoft.com) found several reasons why girls seem to lose interest in STEM as they get older. Reasons range from a lack of role models to little support from parents and teachers, and uncertainty about what STEM careers look like in the real world. Conclusions from the study suggest that, in education, we need to focus on several areas:
- Providing teachers with STEM curriculum and activities that are engaging for girls
- Increasing the number of STEM mentors and role models (including parents)
- Creating learning environments that value and celebrate female perspectives
In my K-12 public school district, we have worked diligently to focus on ways to increase female student involvement in STEM courses and opportunities. Beginning at our elementary campuses, we expose students and families to STEM through fun evening events that allow exploration of STEM activities. For example, students can interact with Sphero SPRK robot balls from our high school computer science class. They can watch a 3D movie about the planets inside our giant inflatable planetarium. The purpose of the event is to generate excitement about STEM and to help educate parents on the opportunities students have within our district.
In middle school and high school, we offer courses more specifically focused on engineering and computer science through our partnership with Project Lead The Way, a nonprofit organization that develops STEM curricula for use by K-12 schools. When hiring teachers for these courses, we are purposeful about looking for females to be the role models we need in these positions. In our middle school engineering course, we have a former NASA Explorer Schools educator teaching our students and bringing them unique experiences like getting hands-on time with actual moon rocks! Our high school computer science teacher has worked hard to recruit girls into her classes. She started a Girls Who Code club and was just named National Computer Science Teacher of the Year through Project Lead The Way! An all-girl middle school group in our district built a rocket during their advanced math class last year and were invited to SpaceX to launch it over the summer. We also just celebrated our first ever all-girl robotics team as they advanced to state-level competition and placed 14th in the final standings.
Our efforts are working, but we have much work yet to do. Moving forward, we hope to better educate teachers, parents and students in the younger grade levels on ways we can support exploration in STEM fields. We are considering additional curricula and activities for elementary schools to use, and we are continuously looking for role models in our community workforce who can share their stories with our students. Women have a future in STEM, and we hope to be a part of building that future!