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How to Encourage the Scientific Interests of Young Girls, Into STEM Careers

January 17, 2017

By: K-8 Elementary Program Consultant and Director of Nature by Design Acampo, CA

On March 23, 2015, President Barack Obama stated, “Science is more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity that world . . .” Our students’ success in the future will be dependent, not on what they know, but what they can do with what they know. It is essential that students be given ample experiences that will equip them with the skills needed to solve real life problems, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of information. The study of science, technology, engineering, and math (subjects know as STEM) equip students with the skills that are needed to meet the coming challenges.

The fact that women are underrepresented in most science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers is fairly well accepted. Although some improvement has been made in the number of women in these careers, the fact still remains that fewer women are represented in STEM fields than men. The question is, why?

Early on, young girls demonstrate as much interest in science and how things work as boys do, but somewhere in the elementary experience this changes. Many ideas have been set forth to explain this change. Often the blame is placed on toys and media that emphasize stereotypic roles for young girls, parents who discourage girls from studying math and science, and lack of positive female role models in the sciences. However, there is increasing evidence* that the unconscious bias of elementary teachers plays a significant role in shaping the attitudes of young girls that steer them away from the STEM fields. If this bias can be reversed, if elementary teachers actively encourage and if we can nurture the scientific interests of young girls, the number of women who enter STEM careers will likely increase. What can you do as a classroom teacher? Here are some easy actions to take:

-Call on girls as often as boys.

-Give girls as much time as boys to investigate, experiment, and do projects related to ideas in STEM areas.

-Respond with positive nonverbal behavior such as head nodding and encouraging smiles to girls as much as to boys.

-Use small-group activities that encourage dialogue.

-Watch groups to ensure that girls are not given stereotypical roles.

-Rotate group roles so girls have opportunities to be team leaders.

-Use same-gender groups so that girls are active in all group roles.

-Engage girls as much as boys in hands-on classroom experiences.

-Give regular attention to the subject of women in science.

-Bring women scientists and upper-level women science teachers into the classroom to talk about their careers.

-Arrange a “career day” and include women in nontraditional roles.

-Provide lists of scientists that include as many women as possible.

-Refer to scientists as “he or she.”

-Demonstrate excitement and enthusiasm when teaching science, especially if you are a woman.

*Victor Lavy and Edith Sand, “On the Origins of Gender Human Capital Gaps: Short and Long Term Consequences of Teachers' Stereotypical Biases,” NBER Working Paper No. 20909 2015.