Research

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Mentors, Encouragement, Hands-on Learning Boost Girls' Interest in STEM Substantially

Generally girls lose interest in STEM careers as they get older. But, according to a new study, small changes at school and at home can have a profound impact on how girls perceive STEM careers, how confident they feel in class and how likely they are to pursue STEM academically and into their careers.

The study, "Closing the STEM Gap," published today by Microsoft, surveyed more than 6,000 girls and young women on their interests and perceptions of science, technology, engineering and math. It found that girls tended to lose interest in STEM as they headed toward adulthood. And, by the time they'd finished high school, their interest had dropped substantially. For example, the report found that interest in computer science among females dropped 27 percentage points between middle school and college. According to the report: "In middle school ... 31 percent of girls believe that jobs requiring coding and programming are 'not for them.' In high school, that percentage jumps up to 40. By the time they're in college, 58 percent of girls count themselves out of these jobs."

But, the study found, countermeasures both large and small can have a profound effect, including:

  • The presence of role models and mentors;
  • Exposure to real-world examples of STEM;
  • Hands-on experience through participation in STEM-related clubs and activities; and
  • Encouragement from parents and educators.

Encouragement

Simple encouragement has a substantial impact on girls. Among elementary and middle school girls, their likelihood of taking a CS course in high school jumped by 23 percentage points based on encouragement from their father (70 percent likely to take a CS course versus 47 percent for those not encouraged by their fathers); 27 points based on encouragement from the mother (66 percent versus 39 percent); and 26 points based on encouragement from teachers (66 percent versus 40 percent).

Similar gaps were seen in the likelihood of these girls taking technology and engineering classes in high school.

Mentors, Encouragement, Hands-on Learning Boost Girls' Interest in STEM Substantially

Combined encouragement from a parent and an educator had an even greater effect, with gaps as high as 38 points in likelihood of taking CS and technology classes in high school, 34 points in likelihood of studying computer science in college and 29 points in likelihood of studying technology in college.

Encouragement also had an impact on participation in class in that girls who are encouraged by teachers and parents are substantially less likely to be embarrassed asking questions in STEM classes.

Real-World Examples

Providing girls with real-world examples of STEM careers seemed to help girls connect STEM disciplines to their own interests.

According to the report: "In our study, after being presented with just a brief description of the real-world accomplishments of engineers, mathematicians, and computer scientists, girls' perceptions of those career characteristics changed dramatically. In some cases, the perception of the creativity and positive impact of STEM careers more than doubled."

This seemed to tie in with girls' descriptions of themselves as "creative" — 91 percent of school-aged participants described themselves this way — and goals of working in careers that have a positive effect on the world — a desire expressed by 72 percent of school-aged survey participants.

"These more favorable perceptions align with how women who work in these fields feel about their jobs," according to the report. "Nearly two-thirds of women who work in STEM fields (64 percent) and tech (65 percent) feel that the work they do makes a difference in the world. This is seven and eight points higher than working women overall (57 percent)."

Hands-On Experiences

Participation in STEM-related clubs and activities outside the classroom also help. Girls involved in extracurricular STEM are more than twice as likely as others to say they feel "powerful" while engaging in STEM (77 percent versus 34 percent). They're also substantially more likely to say they understand "how STEM is relevant and the jobs that are possible through STEM" and that they know "how to pursue a career in STEM."

Girls involved in STEM activities are also significantly more likely to choose to take STEM classes in high school.

According to the report: "Middle school girls who participate in STEM clubs and activities are more than twice as likely to say they'll study physics in high school, and nearly three times as likely to say they'll study engineering. At the high school level, girls participating in STEM clubs and activities are over 2.5 times more likely to say they'll continue studying computer science in college."

However: "Not every girl participates in or has access to a club or activity devoted to STEM. We found that participation decreases the farther you get from city centers: 35 percent of urban girls participate in STEM clubs and activities, compared to 33 percent of suburban girls and only 27 percent of girls in small towns and rural communities. However, what makes these activities effective is not the fact that they happen outside of school. It's the fact that they offer practical experience that brings STEM to life in compelling ways. So, while not every school can offer a STEM club, schools and teachers can explore ways of teaching STEM and computer science that provide similar experiences."

Role Models

Finally, simply knowing a female who works in a STEM career seems to have a profound impact on how girls in grades 5 to 12 perceive STEM.

Sixty-one percent of girls who have a female role model reported they feel "powerful while doing STEM," according to the report, versus 44 percent among girls who lack a role model. Seventy-four percent versus 51 percent said they "know how to pursue a STEM career." And 73 percent versus 53 percent reported they "understand how STEM is relevant and the jobs that are possible through STEM."

"Unfortunately, most girls don't have any female role models in STEM to look up to," according to the report. "So it's no surprise that, when asked to describe a typical scientist, engineer, mathematician, or computer programmer, 30 percent of girls say that they envision a man in these roles. As do almost 40 percent of adult women—and 43 percent of women in STEM and tech fields."

Recommendations

The report offered several recommendations for schools and parents. Among them:

  • Providing more exposure to role models and mentors;
  • Supporting extracurricular STEM activities;
  • Providing hands-on experiences;
  • Emphasizing creativity and impact in STEM;
  • Providing encouragement; and
  • Listening to what girls say about their challenges and desires.

"The last bullet may be the most important," according to the report. "We know that some girls and young women thrive in STEM and computer science studies and careers, while others are stymied and choose not to proceed. As we continue to question why that happens and how to address those reasons, we have to keep our focus on the students and act on what they are telling us they need."

The complete study results can be freely accessed at microsoft.com/en-us/digital-skills/girls-stem-cs.

About the Author

David Nagel is editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Technology Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal and STEAM Universe. A 25-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at or follow him on Twitter at @THEJournalDave (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education).


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