To engage girls in the study of science and technology, educators need to convey the right message about the roles these fields play in society and the skills they require–and they also need to provide more hands-on activities that have some social value.

These were the main lessons imparted during a Sept. 21 webcast hosted by the National Science Foundation’s Information Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program. Concerned about the disparity between the number of men and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers, ITEST convened the webcast as a way to share ideas for how to spark–and retain–girls’ interest in these fields.

The webcast included a panel of speakers from the ITEST community, the private sector, and research and policy communities.

“We really need women in the IT [information technology] arena, because we need to have diversity of thought, generate new ideas, and create a workforce that mirrors the world we’re a part of,” said Carroll McGillin, the national initiatives manager for Cisco Systems’ Networking Academies program. Cisco Systems and the Cisco Learning Institute have developed the Gender Initiative Project, which explores ways to increase women’s access to IT training and careers.

To attract young girls and women to IT fields, McGillin said, educators and employers need to tell them there is a bright future in IT–and that, while technical capabilities are important, prospective IT employees also should have a flexible and collaborative nature, as well as the ability to think critically and learn quickly.

“We want girls to see how technology can help the world, and that it’s an engaging environment,” McGillen added, putting forth a notion that was echoed throughout the webcast: that girls tend to be drawn toward the social implications of technology use, whereas boys are more drawn to the nuts and bolts of technology.

That theme was later taken up by Deborah Muscella, principal investigator for the Technology at the Crossroads project, an initiative at Simmons College that engages middle school youth (with a particular emphasis on girls) in the use of geographic information systems (GIS) technology, global positioning systems (GPS) technology, and hypertext markup langauge (HTML) programming for use in conducting environmental research in Boston.

“Girls have reservations about the computer culture, and they’re concerned about the passivity of their interactions with computers,” Muscella said. “Girls think that technology isn’t taught in the context of real-world problem solving and that technology is devoid of an understandable human context.”

Customizing activities around community resources and focusing on what girls want to learn and experience are key steps in attracting girls and women to STEM careers, said Marcia Kropf, the chief operating officer of Girls Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring girls to be “strong, smart, and bold.”

“Encouraging experimental learning and creating a network with community professional STEM members will go a long way” toward interesting girls in these fields, Kropf said.

Science, math, and technology projects “have to be of interest to female students,” agreed Randal August, principal investigator for the Robotics: Fundamentals of Information Technology and Engineering project at Northeastern University. Through this project, TechBoston and Northeastern University are working collaboratively to integrate an innovative robotics curriculum into STEM courses in Boston public schools and in other racially diverse and economically disadvantaged Massachusetts school districts.

Research and self-reflection also are important. “We have to ask the question that, as we develop something that works well, will it transfer over and appeal to women and girls?” said Claudia Morrell, principal investigator for the Enhancing Science and Technology Education and Exploration Mentoring (ESTEEM) project.

In this project, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County’s Center for Women and Information Technology, the Shriver Center, and the Chabot Space and Science Center have teamed up to implement and beta test Chabot’s TechBridge curriculum in six middle schools. Activities include an after-school program, weekend fieldtrips, and a four-week summer program. The ESTEEM program focuses on encouraging girls’ interest and involvement in elective IT classes and supports their pursuit of IT careers.

“An important aspect is to ask girls and women what motivates them to establish themselves to stay in technology fields,” Muscella added.

Engaging girls in STEM activities can be accomplished “through hands-on activities, all-girls environments, encouraging the girls to take risks, and introducing them to interesting women in STEM fields,” Kropf said. But to keep girls and women interested, a number of different issues, such as the “geek” and “gross” factors, have to be eliminated, August added.

“Things like the ‘gross’ factor keep young girls and young women from wanting to join in, and our biggest goal is to present robotics, math, science, and engineering in a way that will keep these kids interested,” he said. August’s Robotics program targets sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in an effort to keep those girls interested in the sciences as they enter high school.

Part of the problem might be this “gross” factor. “Encouraging girls to take risks, get messy, and try things that are interesting and gross” will help them become more involved in IT fields, Kropf said. In fact, one formula for success is to assume that girls are interested in math, science, and technology, and then help them get past the “yuk” factor, she added.

All of the speakers agreed that women are greatly underrepresented in STEM fields and that much can be done to increase the number of girls and women who become interested in, and remain in, science-related careers and fields. Women constitute just 20 percent of the total technology workforce, according to 2002 U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

Women represent 51 percent of the population, but just 26 percent of computer scientists, nine percent of engineers, and 20 percent of the IT workforce, Muscella said. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, women in 2001 earned 28 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in computer science, 34 percent of master’s degrees, and 18 percent of all doctoral degrees.

When girls have reservations about the computer culture, educating them about technology and its importance in the future workplace might be key in attracting them to IT fields.

The top five fastest-growing U.S. occupations between 1998 and 2008 are all IT-related occupations that require advanced computer skills, and currently fewer women than men occupy those positions, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau published online at the Girls Inc. web site.

Many resources are available to help recruit girls and women into science and technology fields. Women in Technology, a Hawaii-based stateside program run by the U.S. Department of Labor, encourages girls and young women to enter science, technology, engineering, and math careers. Women in Technology International, founded in 1989, helps women advance by providing access to and support from other professional women working in all sectors of technology. The Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology aims to increase the impact of women on all aspects of technology.

Links:

ITEST Learning and Resource Center
http://www.edc.org/itestlrc

Cisco Networking Academy Programs Gender Initiative Project
http://www.cisco.com/web/learning/netacad/digital_divide/gender/index.html

The Center for Women in IT ESTEEM Project
http://www.umbc.edu/cwit/add/esteem.html

Robotics: Fundamentals of Information Technology and Engineering
http://www2.edc.org/itestlrc/itestprojects/Robotics_ma.htm

Technology at the Crossroads
http://www2.edc.org/itestlrc/itestprojects/Crossroad_ma.htm

Women in Technology
http://www.womenintech.com

Girls Inc.
http://www.girlsinc.org

Women in Technology International
http://www.witi.com

The Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology
http://www.anitaborg.org