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Engage girls in STEM by starting early

By Lisa Abel-Palmieri
June 30, 2014
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Schools that want to improve learning outcomes for girls in science, technology, engineering and math classes may want to stop lecturing and start using active learning models. Engaging girls in STEM at an early age is essential to closing the gender divide, particularly in more technical areas of STEM, such as engineering and computer science. Offering role models, encouraging collaboration and providing opportunities for student-directed project-based learning using design thinking and other cutting-edge pedagogies engages girls and improves learning outcomes.

STEM has a bad rap

At the research round tables at ISTE 2014, Jung Won Hur, an assistant professor at Auburn University, shared that girls are often less engaged in computer science because they have a negative perception of computer scientists and other technical jobs. Hur's research found that girls lack role models and are rarely exposed to computer science at a young age. And because they are afraid of how their peers may perceive their interest in STEM, they are less likely to explore STEM courses, programs and college majors.

According to Hur, girls' low self-efficacy in highly technical areas of STEM causes them to disengage before they ever get to high school. This is particularly disheartening, as researchers Gerald Knezek, Rhonda Christensen and Tandra Tyler-Wood also found that without engagement in middle school, girls are less likely to choose STEM as a career. Instead, they found that girls are interested in careers where they can "make a difference in the world" and are more goal-oriented regarding their future at an earlier age than males.

What we can do

We have an opportunity to engage girls with active learning in STEM classes , and we need to take it. We can encourage girls to collaborate with their peers, select projects that are meaningful to them and solve problems that impact their community. Summer camps are not enough. Every girl deserves an opportunity to explore computer science, engineering, physics and other areas of STEM.

Consider having girls-only groups in your STEM classes, a girls-only section of a science classes or running an after-school club for middle school girls run by high school girls involved in programs like FIRST Robotics. Check out the work of the Girls of Steel.

Building girls' self-esteem is also a key component of engaging girls in STEM. Let girls work on teams to solve real-life challenges and provide successful experiences for them to succeed. In our middle school, all fifth and sixth grade girls take a required computer science class. In these classes, team collaboration is not only permitted, it's expected. Partner with local organizations like the Girl Scouts, Black Girls Code and university organizations such as Carnegie Mellon University Women in CS or the National Girls Collaborative Project to make it happen.

Build innovation stations

At The Ellis School, we have innovation stations across the school, led by a team of dedicated STEM teachers that updates the station activities monthly. These stations are places where girls are innovating, building and making sense of the world around them. To encourage spatial reasoning and STEM-focused " "play," " Ellis has installed engineering-focused innovation stations in every classroom in the lower school. The middle and upper school each have one innovation station installed in the public spaces and stocked with challenges to encourage girls to tinker, develop spatial skills and encourage one another. These stations are used in two ways: in class, to build knowledge of design thinking and problem-solving concepts tied to the curricula, and as " "learning through play" " spaces that girls may access on their own.

Innovation stations allow girls to tinker and explore in low-pressure ways. Educators can achieve critical-thinking and higher-level thinking in STEM classes through student-directed project-based learning using design thinking where girls identify "wicked problems" they want to solve. Through these problems, they build empathy for others, fail early and fail often before making prototypes and solutions to solve problems in their school, communities and globally. Involve role models in the projects, show girls that STEM careers are collaborative, and provide feedback and resources to set them up for success.

Tools for STEM success

There are many great products at ISTE 2014 that can engage girls in STEM. Modular Robotics Cubelets and MOSS allow girls to instantly engage in creative problem solving. BirdBrain Technologies' Hummingbird and Finch robots also encourage cross-disciplinary creative expression and scaffold knowledge of computer science, engineering and computational thinking. Tynker provides self-paced courses with built-in tutoring, visual tools and more for girls to learn programming. Vernier Probeware allows for hands-on science learning and the opportunity to shift passive science learning to active learning.

Want to learn more ways to incorporate STEM skills into your lessons? Check out ISTE's STEM webinars.

Lisa Abel-Palmieri, Ph.D., is the director of technology and innovation and head of computer science at The Ellis School. Connect with her on Twitter via @Learn21Tech.