By Anne Jolly
Don’t miss this report: The Complex Data on Girls in STEM in The Atlantic Daily. The new National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) measured students’ ability to think through problems systematically, using technology and engineering to arrive at the best solutions.
And now for the Big Reveal. Guess what the results showed? Girls outscored boys – a surprising result for those who expected data to show that girls are lagging behind boys in STEM. So, does that mean that girls have caught up and there is no longer a gender gap?
Not actually – it just means that there is not now – nor has there ever been – a gender gap in girl’s STEM potential. Few people have ever said that girls lack the ability to be expert problem-solvers. Girls are smart, creative and talented – they have the right stuff for STEM careers.
The current gender gap with girls and STEM doesn’t involve test scores. It involves the number of girls and women who actually choose to pursue STEM studies and go into STEM careers. Keep in mind that not all girls will be interested in pursuing long term STEM focus; but for many, early kernels of interest in STEM subjects you plant will grow into meaningful STEM careers.
Why the Gender Gap?
Let’s look more closely at just what’s going on with our girls and STEM.
I’ve written several blog posts outlining reasons that our girls are opting out of STEM; STEM Girl Power, and more recently, Here’s How to Help Girls Thrive in STEM. In those posts, I mention some terrific websites you can visit to learn a lot about teacher solutions. But here’s a possible solution I missed. We need to involve both girls and boys in building things, fixing things, and understanding how things work.
Karen Peterson, the chief executive of the National Girls Collaborative Project, points out that close to two-thirds of eighth graders (63 percent) say that “their family members most often taught them about those things. Just 13% learned something about those things from teachers. So add that to the list you build on ways to engage girls in STEM. (By the way, as the mother of three sons I’d like to request that boys shouldn’t get slighted. Here’s another article you may want to read: Teaching Boys: the STEM Solution. The work we do with educators around increasing girls’ interest in STEM are teaching strategies that will help boys, too.)
What’s the solution?
A long-term goal of involving girls in STEM, according to Peterson, is not so that the girls will beat the guys on a particular test. Rather, we want girls to develop the persistence and resilience to stick with STEM studies.
So, let’s start working on solving that problem in our K-12 classrooms! GoodCall recently posted an article, Some Successful Approaches to Keep Girls in STEM, that describes terrific ideas for girl-empowering STEM school activities. You might be able to initiate some similar type programs for your students. (Just be sure that you design activities that can embrace all types of ethnicities.)
Here are a few program components to make your efforts successful:
- Help girls gain confidence in their technical skills. Involve girls in computer programming, electronics, computer-aided design, and even machining. If you have a CTE program in your school or district, you might work with the CTE teacher to design a compelling program to attract girls.
- Engage girls in solving real problems, in effective communication, and in successful teamwork. Make the STEM projects a collaborative effort. Girls are often good at working with others and prefer to collaborate when working on projects.
- Personally invite girls to join the program. Adding that personal touch may be just the thing girls need to respond. And be sure to enlist them to join in groups. For girls, there’s often increased confidence in numbers.
- Bring in women in STEM roles and invite them to speak with your girls. Select personable and pleasant speakers who may later become mentors. Rather than talking about their job details, ask them to focus on the job possibilities and excite girls about working in STEM fields.
To wrap this one up, tell your girls to repeat these statements aloud like a mantra several times a day, whether they believe it now or not. Research shows it can make a difference!
- I like learning about science, technology, math, and engineering.
- I am good at science/math/technology.
- I like using engineering to create solutions for real problems.
- I want to be a scientist or engineer or work in technology when I grow up.
Let’s make it possible for our girls to become whoever they want to be.
Anne Jolly is a STEM consultant, MiddleWeb blogger, and online community organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality. She began her career as a middle school science teacher in Mobile County Schools in Alabama and is a former Alabama State Teacher of the Year. Anne has recently co-developed nationally recognized STEM curriculum with support from the National Science Foundation. She writes for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, STEM by Design, is published by Routledge Press. Find her regularly on Twitter @ajollygal, on her blog at MiddleWeb, and on her STEM by Design website.