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How the U.S. can engage girls in STEM

U.S. schools must increase efforts to engage girls in STEM

girls-STEMSchool leaders and policy makers know that including STEM skills in students’ education is a vital part of ensuring that the U.S. remains able to compete on a global level. Statistics reveal that despite efforts to boost interest in STEM education and careers, girls are not as engaged as they could be—but a number of stakeholders are aiming to change that as they come up with creative ways to engage girls in STEM.

Traditionally, “women, blacks, and Hispanics are less likely to be in a science or engineering major at the start of their college experience, and less likely to remain in these majors by its conclusion,” according to a September 2013 Census report by Liana Christin Landivar, which focuses on disparities in STEM occupations.

The number of female STEM workers has increased since the 1970s, Landivar notes, but women are still underrepresented in engineering and computer occupations, which account for more than 80 percent of STEM employment. In fact, since the 1990s, women’s participation in computer science careers has declined.

Men are employed in STEM positions twice as much as women, and almost 1 in 5 female science and engineering graduates are out of the labor force today.

The solution to improving this, many say, is to engage young girls in STEM fields, and then figure out how to sustain their interest in college.

Girls in elementary school enjoy science as much as boys do, and girls and boys score equally on the high school Advanced Placement computer science exam, according to a September compilation of data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the National Center for Women in Information Technology, the Girl Scout Research Institute, and The American Association of University Women.

(Next page: How to increase girls’ STEM interest)

But girls are exposed to incorrect perceptions about technology and programming studies and careers. For instance, girls are told that boys are naturally better at computer science, and this has a direct impact on their test performance.

In college, girls account for 57 percent of undergraduate students, 52 percent of math and science majors, and 18 percent of computer science majors. In 1985, 36 percent of women majored in computer science, but in 2012, that number dropped to half–just 18 percent.

If girls receive positive encouragement and are exposed to female role models in STEM fields; are introduced to technology concepts, such as programming, at an early age; and are taught with social, hands-on learning activities, their continued interest and participation in STEM careers could continue.

On Sept. 14, 100 middle and high school girls from Baltimore City attended a “Girls and STEM Summit” at the headquarters of athletic company Under Armour. There, the girls were exposed to STEM enrichment and learned about STEM innovation and entrepreneurship.

Melissa Pickering, founder of iCreate to Educate, delivered the event’s keynote speech.

Pickering, who has a background in mechanical engineering, began her career as a roller coaster engineer at Walt Disney Imagineering and noticed that there were not many young women joining the field.

Out of around 130 engineers, around five were female.

“I was really surprised,” Pickering said in an exclusive interview with eSchool News. “I thought back to what I went into engineering, and I did a lot of hands-on and creation-based things outside the classroom.”

Realizing that lots of her motivation to enter engineering occurred outside of the classroom, Pickering started iCreate to Educate, a Boston-based startup that empowers students to blend science and the arts through hands-on learning.

“We can expose kids—particularly girls—to problem-solving and creating, and that might lead them to opportunities outside the classroom,” she said, adding that tailoring STEM-based activities to areas that girls are traditionally interested in can also help. For instance, research shows that girls tend to like activities where they can help people, so involving them in a challenge to create a better seat belt or better safety features in a car might engage girls more.

“I try to show teachers that there’s an opportunity to weave some engineering design in with [their lessons]. Teachers have to be comfortable with it, too,” she said. “It’s not scary—it’s really just about problem-solving, thinking, asking questions, and applying what you’ve learned.”

Nonprofit Girls Inc. has teamed up with Discovery Education to offer Discovery Education’s STEM Camp resources to girls across the U.S. The STEM-aligned curriculum resources are built around the National Academy of Engineering’s grand engineering challenges. Girls Inc. educators and mentors will have a chance to participate in a series of Discovery Education professional development training focused on best practices for implementing STEM curricula.

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Laura Ascione

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