Engaging Girls in STEM

Three things middle level educators can do to encourage more girls to engage in STEM

By: Sonya Hayes

The movie Hidden Figures, the story of four African American women working at NASA in the 1960s, has reinvigorated the role of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) careers. Although women comprise 48% of the current U.S. workforce, they comprise less than 25% of the workforce in STEM fields, and current enrollment trends in colleges and universities predict that this number is not going to change in the near future. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that in 1985 women received 37% of technology-related degrees granted in universities, but in 2014, women only received 18% of technology-related degrees granted in universities in the U.S.

Consequently, women's participation in technology professions fell from 37% in 1990 to 25% in 2014. This trend is problematic as future careers in STEM are rapidly growing. They're predicting that this year, the U.S. may be short as many as three million high-skilled workers in the STEM industry. Lawrence and Mancuso reported in Technology and Engineering Teacher that "our economy is increasingly dependent on workers skilled in advanced technology, but at each education level from K-12 onward, structural barriers discourage women from entering into challenging, and much higher-paid fields of science, technology, engineering, and math."

The absence of women from STEM education and careers affects more than women, it affects the STEM field. Women bring a different perspective to the discipline, and having more women in STEM occupations will not only help women, it will help society benefit from their expertise by maximizing innovation, creativity, and competitiveness. The underrepresentation of women in STEM fields raises two significant concerns: (a) women's lack of participation in highly influential and well-paid careers threatens to perpetuate and exacerbate existing socioeconomic disparities for women; (b) women will have little say when it comes to inventing the technologies of the future and determining how the world will be shaped by technology.

As women are still underrepresented in STEM careers, educators are called upon to do more to encourage girls to enroll in STEM classes so they can build their self-confidence in STEM subjects and develop a love for advanced technology, math, and engineering skills. This self-confidence and passion develops in the middle school years as it is a critical time when girls begin to identify with their strengths and weaknesses. McCreedy and Dierking explained in their book, Cascading Influences: Long-term Impacts of Informal STEM Experiences for Girls, that female students with positive attitudes toward math and science at age 10 lose their interest and self-confidence by age 14. Middle school educators lay the foundation for the advanced coursework in math, science, and technology that female students will undertake in high school. This raises questions and concerns for educators on what middle schools can do to increase female interest and participation in STEM courses in high school and post-secondary schools.

Based on existing research, there are three key things middle level educators can do to encourage more girls to engage in STEM courses: adopt a growth mindset, provide female role models/mentors from STEM careers, and provide out-of-school time (OST) programs that are gender specific.

Growth Mindset

Teachers can adopt a growth mindset and explicitly teach female students that academic abilities are expandable and improvable to enhance girls' beliefs about their abilities. Middle school math and science teachers should establish a challenging curriculum focused on exploratory learning that engages female students in risk taking and problem solving to build their confidence in math and science. Girls who are more confident in their abilities to engage in math and science curriculum are more likely to pursue challenging courses in math and science in high school. Middle school math and science teachers should also provide female students with specific feedback on ways to improve their performance and nurture their spatial reasoning skills. This can be done by incorporating teaching and learning practices that build on a student's prior knowledge and help the student make connections. Finally, teachers should avoid any negative stereotypes when working with female students in math and science. They can avoid stereotypes by encouraging female students to enter science fairs, join math competitions or robotic teams, and choose activities that spark inquiry learning and interest in math and science. Additionally, teachers can engage female students in STEM experiences that become transformative, such as hands-on science activities, exploratory trips and field experiences, and positive interactions with female role models.

Female Role Models/Mentors

Women and girls need to see female role models in the workplace that look like them. The Association for Middle Level Education has asserted that middle school girls thrive and find success when they have an advocate or a mentor to support them. Middle level educators need to actively recruit professional women in STEM careers from a wide range of stakeholders such as colleges and universities, NASA, industry, technology fields, and engineering companies. These role models should be included in various STEM activities such as mentoring girls in robotics, science fairs, or math competitions. Female students also gain valuable experience by visiting their role models and mentors in the workplace. By partnering with leading STEM industries in the community, middle school educators can open a network of possibilities for their female students and further ignite their interest in STEM courses.

Out-of-School Time Programs

One of the most effective ways to engage female students in STEM activities is through out-of-school time (OST) programs. OST programs include activities offered to students after school, on weekends, and during the summer. The National Girls Collaborative Project advocates for after school STEM clubs that are gender specific to create safe places for girls to experience STEM activities. Additionally, Froschal and Sprung reported in Girls and Women in STEM that more than 70% of girls who participated in a science-focused OST program learned new skills and had fun, and 90% of girls reported that their interest in science increased. Middle level teachers and female mentors who are serious about nurturing their female students' propensity for STEM subjects will find creative ways to lure them to OST programs that support STEM learning. Some of these ideas can include using fun and colorful promotions of OST programs and using girl empowerment slogans such as Code like a Girl or Girl Powered Robotics. Female students need to feel supported and nurtured in a safe environment to build self-esteem and confidence, and developing "all girls" clubs focused on STEM activities is a great way to do it.

OST opportunities offered to middle school girls should be nurturing and exploratory programs where girls can engage in activities that are normally designed for boys such as designing robots, creating websites, developing video games, and building TETRIX robots. Lego robotics competitions are accessible and beneficial for all students. However, technology-savvy male students comprise the vast majority of participants in the robotics program, and this can be a deterrent for girls curious about joining but hesitant to be stereotyped. Schools would benefit by increasing participation by female students, ensuring that talented future engineers of all genders are able to participate in and enrich robotics programs. Female students could foster their development in science, technology, engineering, and math via exploration with robotics. Each female participant could be exposed to a field and a future that she might never have envisioned for herself.


The National Science Foundation estimates that about 5,000,000 people work directly in science, engineering, and technology—just over 4% of the workforce. This relatively small group of workers is critical to economic innovation and productivity. Workers in science and engineering fields tend to be well paid and enjoy better job security than other workers. Workforce projections for 2018 by the U.S. Department of Labor and Statistics show that 9 of the 10 fastest growing occupations that require at least a bachelor's degree will require significant scientific or mathematical training. Many science and engineering occupations are predicted to grow faster than the average rate for all occupations, and some of the largest increases will be in engineering and computer-related fields—fields in which women currently hold one-quarter or fewer positions.

STEM education is a critical area for educators to address for its female students, and STEM activities should start early as a girl's perception about herself and her academic abilities begins in middle school. What girls learn about themselves in middle school will guide them through high school and college. Middle school educators should promote activities that encourage female students to engage in STEM education to build the self-esteem and confidence that will carry them through college and into lucrative STEM careers.

Sonya Hayes, PH.D. is assistant professor of educational leadership at Louisiana State University.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2018.


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