I'm working on an interesting project that is looking to create a “greengineering” magnet school in a mid-sized city. One aspect of that project is getting girls interested in STEM. I was surprised, when we looked at the research, just how clear it is that girls are still underrepresented in STEM:
- Lower enrollments in STEM-related coursework
- Lower participation in STEM workforce
- Greater disparity for girls of color & ELL
- Gendering of educational trajectories remains a problem
- Implicit bias is a problem
- Women with graduate and post-graduate STEM degrees more likely to work part-time
This made me look back at the Bright Futures Core Practices. These 3 popped out at me as relating to the issue.
Core Practice 1. Students have access to curriculum that is relevant, challenging, integrative, and exploratory and is organized and executed to maximize accessibility for all students. – Are we creating enough opportunities for girls to explore science in ways that are relevant and challenging?
Core Practice 3. Teachers in all content areas use teaching and learning practices that are anchored in 21st century literacies. – STEM is certainly a literacy for modern times. How can we better include girls in not just mastering STEM but becoming engaged by it?
Core Practice 5. All middle level students experience learning opportunities that emphasize creativity and innovation. – STEM is one way we can involve youth in creativity and innovation. How can we better involve girls in this?
Of course, we shouldn't worry about only getting girls involved with science and engineering. Schools have a responsibility to help all its students (regardless of gender) to become more interested and passionate about STEM. But researching girls and science made me think of another recommendation from the Bright Futures report: Core Practice 2. Teachers use research-based instructional practices in their classrooms that are effective in increasing the learning and achievement of young adolescents.
Looking at that research showed me that, If we fall into the trap of focusing on STEM in the traditional ways, we run the risk of loosing half our population's interest in STEM through attrition as they progress through middle school and into high school and on to college. The strategies for interesting girls in science are not the same strategies that we have been using, nor are they the strategies the work for boys. According to the National Science Foundation, these six strategies are key to engaging girls:
- Experiential learning
- STEM career perceptions
- Importance of 21st century skills
- Fostering persistence
- Creating a culture of high expectations
Further, according to Girlstart, a nonprofit dedicated to providing after-school and enrichment programs to get girls interested in the sciences, these strategies help girls:
- Start young
- Explore with your kids
- Look for enrichment programs that make science fun
- Encourage girls to stick with the sciences
- Show your daughters how science can be applied to solve real-world problems
And a recent study, published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, showed that girls are more interested in studying subjects such as physics or IT if they are presented in a female-friendly way. Teaching girls about the use of lasers in cosmetic surgery or how to order clothes online encourages them to study science, the research suggests. In the report, Dr Sylvie Kerger, of the University of Luxembourg, said: “There was clear evidence that applying female friendly topics increased girls’ interest in these scientific disciplines… Girls were more interested in social and real contexts such as decline of forests whereas boys clearly found mechanics and technology more compelling.”
So maybe we should be working to insure that our middle grades programs feature hands-on science and technology activities, field trips, role models, and female-friendly contexts for learning content. And maybe Maine's middle schools should also pursue successful, evidence-based curricula that have demonstrated their ability to deliver positive outcomes and success in stimulating girls’ interest in STEM subjects and instilling self-confidence in their abilities, such as those from Girlstart, Great Science for Girls, and the Maine Girls Collaborative Project.