Engaging Female Students in the STEM Fields

Women make up half of the nation’s workforce and earn more college and graduate degrees.  Yet, according to multiple reports, the number of women in STEM occupations has actually been decreasing.

Why is this concerning? 

Most scientists don’t work alone to make discoveries; they collaborate.  Scientists from different branches, as well as engineers, bring their skills to the project to maximize results.  Adding more diversity to the team, through women and additional “social identities” increases the creativity and insight of the projects, which increases the chances of achieving a true innovation. 

Researchers offer many reasons for this shortage, but there are steps that can be taken to support women in the pursuit of STEM-related fields, if it is something they are interested in. One way to help is to start in schools.

How can teachers help?

  • Include female role models.  Invite a female scientist or engineer into the classroom to speak or do a demonstration.  Showcase a different female scientist or engineer each month (let a team of girls choose and present this to the class).
  • Showcase STEM activities that girls find relevant.  Girls need more time to develop the spatial skills that help them succeed in STEM.  Give them hands-on opportunities to develop these skills and see the relevance of STEM at work in their current lives.
  • Observe girls in your class during science and math.  Are they engaged, are they excited?  If not, evaluate how this can change.
  • Survey your students.  The best way to find out what will get and keep their interest might just be to ask them verbally or through a paper or electronic survey.
  • Do a unit on career projects.  Allow girls to conduct research on female scientists and engineers who are innovators of things that interest them.
  • Give feedback (especially constructive feedback) in a supportive manner.  Many girls see a teacher as their ally – approval motivates them.  If the teacher encourages them, they will most likely welcome their help.  However, if they are redirecting in an unsupportive fashion this can be particularly detrimental (to self-esteem in particular). They may not isolate the criticism as a need to study more for math, but instead that they are generally “not good at things”. 
  • Provide context to spark interest. If you put it into a real world or historical context, that is more likely to spark their interest.  Tell a story, use story problems. Find a way to give them the “bigger picture” and of course, have fun!