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STEM-ing Girls’ Interest in Engineering and Computer Science

May 22, 2019

By: Kendall Hunt RPD with contributions from the writing team of By Design Science grades 1-8

With graduation season in full swing, students of all ages are pondering their futures, making plans of study, and imagining dream jobs. But what jobs are they imagining—especially young female students? We’ve been told girls are less likely than boys to pursue degrees and careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects.

Is this true? Well, partially.

Educational gains

First, the positive news: more girls than ever are choosing a STEM-based educational field. According to data from the National Science Foundation, women earned 37.2% of all bachelor's degrees in the fields of science and engineering in 1980, which increased to 50.3% in 2010.

However, those numbers only tell part of the story. Research from the University of Washington shows that although some STEM fields, such as biology and mathematics, have dramatically increased their female membership, fields such as engineering and computer science have failed to do so. In other words, when girls do choose a STEM career, they gravitate toward hard sciences and math—not toward the more “applied” side of STEM, such as engineering.

The employment disconnect

The problem is, the hard sciences and math are the fields within STEM that are most likely to lead to employment in non-STEM-related occupations. A Harvard University study shows that engineering majors are most likely to enter STEM jobs, whereas graduates in the physical and biological sciences are the least likely to enter the STEM labor force. So even though female participation in STEM majors is increasing, their performance in the STEM job market itself is not, and the reason is that female STEM majors aren’t choosing the majors that are most likely to land them a STEM job.

The long and short of it? We’ve done a good job of encouraging and normalizing girls to enter the physical sciences. Now, we need to do the same specifically for engineering and programming. Here’s how K–12 teachers can have an impact as we head into summer.  

How teachers can make a difference now

Don’t try to promote STEM by painting it as a field with low female involvement. Rather than encouraging girls to break the norm, this tactic may actually reinforce their beliefs that they “won’t fit in” in this field. Encourage the STEM interests of both boys and girls with these end-of-year ideas:

  • End the year with a fun engineering or computer science project, like a Rube Goldberg machine or a coding app. When you form groups for projects, watch to ensure that girls are not given stereotypical roles, rotate group roles so that girls have opportunities to be team leaders, or even consider using same-gender groups so that girls are active in all group roles.
  • As an alternative project, provide students with a list of STEM careers (heavy in the engineering and computer science fields) and allow each student to pick one and research what it might actually look like as a “real job.” Students can present their findings to the class. What they discover about what engineering “really is” might surprise them and their peers!
  • Compile a list of local STEM-related summer camps and activities that students can take home in a weekly newsletter or mailbag. Whether through a nearby university, the local library, or even an organization like Play Well and Engineering for Kids, there are plenty of summer events to “stem” students’ interests. There are also often camps geared to, or exclusively for, girls.
  • If time and funding permit, plan an end-of-year field trip to a nearby business in an engineering or computer science–related field—for example, a software development company. Try to schedule a time to speak with a female employee or manager if possible.

What tactics have you used to inspire your students to investigate computer science and engineering?

Sources:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5315093/

https://depts.washington.edu/sibl/gender-and-stem/

http://review.chicagobooth.edu/economics/2017/article/how-promoting-stem-fields-women-can-backfire

https://www.play-well.org/

https://www.engineeringforkids.com/