Empowering girls in STEM is not just about achieving gender balance; it's about ensuring that diverse perspectives and experiences are well-represented in these fields.
When girls are encouraged to pursue their interests in STEM, they can fully realize their potential and contribute to innovation and progress. Research demonstrates that early exposure to STEM, coupled with female role models, plays an important role in fostering success among girls in these fields. It's not solely about skill development but also about nurturing a mindset that says, "I am capable of this."
As innovation booms and reshapes our way of life and work, the significance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields cannot be overstated. Yet, a significant gender gap in these fields remains. Research has consistently shown that girls are more likely to pursue STEM-related activities when exposed to them early on and when they have at least one female teacher or role model.
This story holds personal significance for me on a number of levels. First, having taught mathematics at Bullis School in Potomac, Maryland, for 15 years and computer science earlier in my Bullis teaching career for five years, ensuring that all students find joy and connection to STEM fields is deeply important to me. Second, Bullis’ director of STEM, Taryn Kittel, was my student. I had the privilege to teach her in both Honors Algebra 2 and AP Calculus. Witnessing the path she has taken and the leadership she is demonstrating fills me with immense pride.
In talking with Taryn, I hear such passion and purpose in her goals. She is determined to find ways to encourage girls to explore coursework and projects in math, science, engineering and technology in a manner that feels welcoming and empowering. She credits her supportive parents, consistent exposure to inspiring female educator and inclusive academic environments as key elements in her own journey into STEM.
Her father, a geologist, introduced Taryn to science at an early age, fostering her curiosity and wonder about the world around her. As a student at Bullis, she found strong female role models who supported and encouraged her to cultivate her passion for the sciences. Even in college, where she sometimes found herself in male-dominated classes, she never felt out of place or stifled. On weekends, she volunteered with a STEM club for middle school girls and saw it spark the students’ interest in STEM and helped them build confidence.
Activities Encourage Cross-Division Collaboration
Bullis recognizes the importance of making STEM accessible to all students. Starting in lower school, students consistently engage in hands-on projects and project-based learning. Students have access to vegetable and butterfly gardens just outside their classroom and work on projects with themes like “Restoring a Rainforest” as they study ecology. From an early age, students develop curiosity and environmental awareness that underpin their future learning, and in the process, they acquire valuable research skills, like how to carefully document and report.
“The lower school STEM programs allow students to see themselves as scientists in a variety of different fields, from an ecologist studying the Costa Rican rainforest to a geologist studying fossils in a national park to an electrical engineer helping a town solve their frequent blackouts. This helps girls see that there are many different avenues into the world of STEM and how they can fit into these different fields.”
– Dana Miller, lower school STEM coordinator
Bullis’ commitment to cross-division K-12 STEM collaboration is evident in various activities. During the Halloween event, "Make-O-Ween," upper school students help the lower school create costumes. Lower school students also have a chance to engage with a variety of STEM demonstrations. These hands-on demonstrations are run and led by upper school students, who also explain the science behind each. Lower schoolers interact with fun, festive experiments like attempting to break open a frozen glove to reveal prizes, making gooey slime, and observing reactions with candy-filled balloons.
Attracting Students With a Range of Interests, Abilities
In the middle school, teachers weave in greater creative freedom as the curriculum expands. Students are equipped with fundamental skills in their coursework and are then offered a wide range of options to pursue their personal interests. For instance, in their technology courses, students are challenged with sewing projects that not only bring their designs to life in a tangible form but also broaden their perspectives on tech-focused coursework, emphasizing its real-world applications beyond the screen. Later in the year, students delve into the world of robotics through interactive experiences as they create a robot for the class’s "petting zoo."
“Everything we do in our middle school technology courses is intended to be accessible to a wide range of students with various interests and technical abilities. Additionally, all work that students create is intended for an authentic audience. For example, sixth-grade students share their passion for a topic by creating animated stories ranging from saving animals to sports to women's rights. In seventh grade, students learn the ins and outs of coding and game design, then build and share their creations with their teachers and peers, and in eighth grade, students design and build interactive robots to share with our Lower School students.”
– Rita Gerharz, middle school technology coordinator
Middle school students also participate in the Bullis Builds program, where they design and build cars, bridges and catapults, showcasing their engineering skills. This program not only fosters creativity and problem-solving but also encourages teamwork, allowing students to collaborate and learn together. In turn, upper school students gain valuable experience as they take on the role of judges, assessing the innovative designs and solutions crafted by their peers.
“Bullis Builds was inspired by the Final Frontiers engineering/physics competition, originally sponsored by the Maryland Space Business Roundtable and the Maryland Space Grant Consortium, in which I participated with my students for over 20 years. Final Frontiers was designed to challenge and inspire students to pursue science-related careers featuring a series of STEM contests. When the original program ended years ago, teachers were encouraged to create versions of it in their schools to keep the spirit of the competition alive. That spirit is alive and well in the annual Middle School Bullis Builds competition!”
– Karen McPhaul, middle school science teacher
As students progress to the upper school, they can pursue a more concentrated STEM curriculum through the STEM Signature Program. Even within the structure of this program, student choice is built in. For example, students can specialize in a particular science course or diversify their coursework by exploring various science, math and technology courses.
The culminating STEM Capstone project gives students a taste of authentic undergraduate research and thoughtfully incorporates communication and writing skills, which will be vital elements of their academic journeys should they choose to pursue research.
Students Conduct Authentic Research
In their Capstone course, students are given both choice and autonomy as they are guided through an authentic research process. This comprehensive research experience includes writing proposals, managing budgets and adhering to research ethics standards to ensure the project's safety and integrity. With assigned mentors, students take responsibility for scheduling meetings, delegating tasks, and collaborating effectively. The culmination of their work is a spring symposium where they display and present their projects in front of the entire Upper School student body. Expert judges award prizes in various categories, and students and faculty weigh in by picking a fan favorite.
To foster mentorship, senior Capstone students have begun holding lunchtime Q&A discussions on a specific STEM discipline. These sessions provide students in grades 9-11 with the opportunity to get advice on matters such as course selection and potential internship opportunities. The events are led by students who have previously participated in programs or internships spanning various STEM fields, allowing them to share their experiences and the most valuable insights they’ve gained.
In addition to student leaders, parent volunteers will also contribute by sharing information about their career paths. The goal of these luncheons is to facilitate meaningful student-to-student and parent-to-student relationships, enabling those who have experience and expertise to exchange insights and guidance with those interested in pursuing STEM fields and extracurricular opportunities.
Looking Ahead: Steps to Empower Girls in STEM
Bullis is taking concrete steps to make STEM education more accessible and exciting for girls. Recognizing the importance of language, they have revamped some course names and curriculums to emphasize creativity and make them more welcoming for all. For instance, "Engineering Graphics with CAD" has become "Introduction to CAD with 3D Printing." This course is now not only a STEM elective but also fulfills an art requirement, allowing students to acquire the same essential skills while integrating creative expression more thoughtfully. Additionally, Bullis has introduced a Fashion Technology course, applying traditional tech and engineering skills to a more traditionally art-focused audience.
In the Robotics Club, students will now participate in the Baltimore Robotics Challenge. This program and competition infuse creativity into the design and building process. Students 3D print or use woodwork to create parts and design their robots with a great deal of artistic freedom as they simultaneously develop coding skills to make their robots walk.
Bullis is continually expanding its offerings aimed at empowering girls in STEM. Initiatives like the Fashion Technology course and Baltimore Robotics Challenge are just some of the examples of the school’s efforts to emphasize creativity, sustainability and visionary thinking in the world of technology and engineering.
“I ended up interested in STEM due to a set of fortunate happenstances: having a father who liked science, ending up with female STEM teachers who I found relatable and having supportive male friends in college who never made me feel like an outsider as the only girl. If any number of those circumstances had been even slightly different, I may never have ended up studying STEM at a high level. My goal at Bullis is to make sure that it's not just happenstance for our students; that every student is encouraged and given the opportunity to pursue STEM.”
– Taryn Kittel, director of STEM
Promoting girls' involvement in STEM education is vital for not only closing the gender gap but also ensuring that diverse perspectives and experiences are welcomed and valued in these fields. Bullis’ commitment to fostering inclusivity and innovation in STEM is a prime example of how schools can make a difference in empowering the next generation of female scientists, engineers, and innovators with programs that start early and extend through high school.
Empowering girls in STEM will always be a topic that's particularly close to my heart. As I reflect on Bullis’ initiatives, I am filled with such excitement and hope. I became a math teacher to help students discover beauty, joy and confidence in mathematics. My mother, a math teacher herself, instilled these very values in me early on, shaping my life and career. The presence of positive female role models and forward-thinking programming makes a world of difference. Witnessing the innovative and inclusive endeavors at Bullis, where students apply math and science skills from their core classes in authentic and creative ways, extending into disciplines such as the arts, has been truly inspiring. Dedicated efforts like these have the potential to spark curiosity that may have otherwise gone untapped, opening a path for a new generation of female scientists, programmers, mathematicians, engineers and innovators.
Stacey Roshan is an educator, keynote speaker, TED-Ed talker, consultant, and author of Tech with Heart. She is passionate about discovering and sharing ways to leverage technology to cultivate deeper compassion in the classroom and provide each learner with the optimal platform to express their ideas in a format that best fits their style. She aims to equip teachers with ideas and tech tools to create more inclusive, equitable, and empowering classrooms for every student to find their voice, build their confidence, and take ownership of their learning. Her work has been featured in USA Today, The Washington Post, CNN, and PBS Newshour.