How can we help encourage girls to choose STEM careers?
Collaborative, project-based, hands-on learning, as well as the development of growth mindsets for all students, is essential to generate and sustain girls’ interest in STEM.
In recent years, we have been plagued by statistics that confirm a gender gap in STEM. But even as the world is waking up to the stark reality of the gender divide in STEM careers, the field is still experiencing a global shortage of qualified candidates.
The obvious solution to this shortage is the elimination of the gender gap—more women in STEM will create a more equal balance of genders while at the same time filling up open positions. But this solution is more complicated than it seems. How can we help encourage girls to choose STEM careers?
According to Palmieri (2014), “Engaging girls in STEM at an early age is essential to closing the gender divide, particularly in more technical areas of STEM, such as engineering and computer science.” In order to engage girls in STEM at an early age, we need to understand how girls learn and build their self-esteem; this understanding can help us change the ways STEM is taught to make it more exciting for girls.
Multiple research studies have shown that girls show more engagement in science when learning is collaborative and project-based; girls are “relational learners” who thrive in collaborative environments. Additionally, group projects allow girls to bond and form more positive relationships with their classmates. In this way, it is important to adopt more project-based lessons in the classroom in order to encourage this engagement.
It’s also important to consider that group dynamics play a significant role in how young girls respond to and feel about learning. Girls tend to be more concerned with relationships than their male classmates. So what to do? Clinical psychologist, author, and consultant Andrew Fuller advises “overriding cliques” by ensuring that students interact with a variety of their classmates, rather than just their close friends.
Group dynamics can also be enhanced by assigning team members individual roles. This primarily ensures that boys will not “take over” the project and carves out space for girls to have a voice. It also allows the group as a whole to be more organized and understand what working effectively as a team looks like.
In addition to relationships with their classmates, girls’ learning is also heavily shaped by their relationships with educators. Fuller points out that girls “like teachers who like them”; a positive mindset in the classroom will generate a more positive attitude towards STEM in general.
However, collaborative learning can also take place outside of the classroom. Creating STEM-focused clubs can contribute to girls’ engagement in the field and further enhance their experiences in the classroom. This can also allow for a greater exploration of group dynamics that might not be possible due to the time constraints of the classroom.
Project-based learning also contributes to students’ understanding of real-world applications of STEM. Because girls’ learning can be enhanced by focusing on how a topic is relevant to their world and the ways it can be applied in the future, educators can foster their students’ engagement and interest in STEM by emphasizing real-world applications of classroom topics.
Finally, encouraging girls’ engagement in STEM requires us to address the mindset girls have in the classroom. Girls often have a “fixed” mindset when it comes to math, meaning that they “believe...basic qualities, like intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits.” Thus, it is important to encourage a “growth” mindset in young students; this mindset looks at intelligence and talent as starting points and basic abilities as something that can “be developed through dedication and hard work.”
Girls who have a fixed mindset are less likely to be interested in STEM, because if they aren’t immediately perfect at everything, they will believe they are incapable of improving. In this way, teaching girls in a way that cultivates a growth mindset will help remedy the gender gap in the field.
Educators can also develop this growth mindset in their students by providing qualitative in addition to quantitative feedback. Test or quiz scores are useful in determining what a student has learned, but can often reduce students’ personal learning goals to a number. Qualitative feedback, like holding meetings and discussing progress individually, can help show students what they’ve done well and how much they have improved, which will encourage them to continue working hard rather than giving up.
Thus, it is important to employ a variety of classroom strategies in order to encourage young girls’ interest in STEM. Collaborative, project-based, hands-on learning, as well as the development of growth mindsets for all students, is essential to generate and sustain girls’ interest in STEM.
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Jacobs, Charlotte E. et al. (2014). To reach girls in classroom, align practices to specific learning needs. Retrieved from http://www.kappanonline.org/jacobs-reaching-girls-in-classroom/
Fuller, A (Heuristic). Teaching Girls. Retrieved from http://andrewfuller.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Teaching-Girls.pdf
Palmieri, L.M. (2014). Engage Girls in STEM by starting early. Retrieved from (https://www.iste.org/explore/articleDetail?articleid=90&category=ISTE-blog&article=
Murphy, M. (2016). How do Girls Learn Best. Retrieved from https://ncgsblog.org/2016/09/12/how-girls-learn-best/
Shakeshaft, C. (2009). Reforming Science Education to Include Girls. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00405849509543660?journalCode=htip20
Solberg, M. (2018) Can the implementation of aerospace science in elementary school help girls maintain their confidence and engagement in science as they transition to middle school? Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0094576517316089
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