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STEM Focus | Feature

Engaging Girls in STEM

There may not be one all-encompassing solution to STEM gender equity, but there are some tools that can help get girls interested in STEM and keep them engaged with it through their secondary and post-secondary education--ranging from investments in professional development to simple, everyday encouragement.

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The results are in, and girls in the United States aren't any more interested in STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) careers than they were 10 or 20 years ago. More alarming is the fact that those girls who do take an interest in such subjects at the middle school and high school level tend to drift to other interests in college. The trend is raising red flags all across academia, where teachers and administrators are struggling to ward it off and get female students more interested in STEM.

In a recent study on Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math from Florida Gulf Coast University and the University of Colorado at Boulder, researchers found that in the United States, two-thirds of young children (boys and girls alike) said they like science. The numbers began to diverge in middle school and became more obvious in high school, where "many girls who take advanced science courses in middle school do not continue to study science in high school," according to the report.

The researchers also found that the proportion of women pursuing science degrees has declined since the mid-1980s and that, while women now earn 35 percent of chemical engineering degrees, just 14 percent earn electrical engineering degrees. The trend continued into the workforce, where men outnumbered women (73 percent versus 27 percent in "all sectors of employment for science and engineering," according to the report).

Lance Rougeux, director of the Discovery Educator Network in Silver Springs, MD, said he's concerned about the dearth of women pursuing STEM degrees and careers. "Twenty-first century learners must be prepared for a very different workplace than their predecessors," said Rougeux. "To succeed in the workplace--and in society in general--students need broader skills that encompass the entire philosophy of STEM, which comes into play in pretty much any career."

Even the young entrepreneur whose goal it is to run her own hair salon, for example, needs computer and technology skills to be able to collaborate and communicate effectively, said Rougeux, who is a former middle school science teacher. Getting more girls on board with STEM, he said, requires deliberate strategies on the part of educators to connect learning with "real-life" experiences.

"We have to give students the opportunity to engage in authentic, real-world learning experiences, instead of looking at every 45-minute science class as discrete," said Rougeux. "The student has to see the connections between her various classes, and between those classes and the world beyond the school walls."

Rougeux said there is also a lack of STEM role models for girls, who begin to lose interest in such subjects after finishing middle school. "If I could pick one factor that would make a big difference, it would be the need for formal role models," said Rougeux, who recalled from his own experience that more boys gravitated to robotics clubs that were led by male teachers.

"We had a great after-school art club that a female teacher ran, and we always saw more girls in that group," said Rougeux. "I don't think it was so much of a disinterest in science and technology on the part of the girls, as much as it was the desire to participate in something that a female teacher was directing."

Rougeux, who pointed to Sally Ride Educator Institutes as a good example of how female-led STEM groups can attract more girls to technical careers, said professional development (for those teachers who are unintentionally discouraging young women from such careers) should be at the heart of any such initiative. An after-school math or science club that's headed up and championed by a female teacher, for example, can go a long way in getting girls to consider STEM degrees and careers.

"Ultimately, the goal is to keep that student interested through eighth grade, and then making sure she doesn't fall off when she enters high school," said Rougeux. "This can be accomplished through STEM clubs where everyone is encouraged to participate, and where the only two girls in the group (out of 12 total) aren't the club [secretaries]."

Patty Hunt, director of research at Hathaway Brown School, an all-girls college preparatory academy in Shaker Heights, OH, said getting more female students on board with STEM careers will require a solid foundation that boosts the number of girls who stick with such majors through college. She said Hathaway Brown's own findings reveal that just 16 percent of girls entering a four-year college choose a STEM major, and just 8.5 percent are actually graduated with STEM degrees.

"Parents will say, 'My daughter is in middle school and loves science,' so [teachers] are clearly doing a good job there," said Hunt. "However, the nurturing isn't kept up in high school."

To reverse the trend, Hunt said, high schools across the country should combine college-prep coursework with hands-on experience in engineering research, robotics and nanotechnology labs--all of which can help students make the connection between education and their future careers.

Non-STEM teachers can also help get more girls interested in technical subjects. "Graphic arts students use Macs, and English students use Kindles," said Hunt. "In fact, technology usage penetrates all aspects of society--to the point where even people who don't want to major in science are using it on a daily basis."

The road to progress often starts with one child, said Hunt, who mentioned a recent female student at Hathaway Brown who developed a sensor to detect unsafe levels of pollution. She patented her invention and went on to win Seimens STEM Academy and Intel awards for her work. "Start with one student who has a passion, and figure out a system that works for that child," said Hunt, "then give a lot of pats on the head and positive feedback whenever you can."

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