Just 15 percent of U.S. engineers are women. Here’s how to correct that statistic and get girls invested in STEM. Engineering is empowering. It encompasses the ability to create whatever you can imagine and thereby change the world for the better. But in the United States, fewer than 15 percent of working engineers are women, despite comprising half of the population. There are a number of possible reasons for this inequality, but a variety of contributing factors take effect at an early age.
Consider that our culture encourages boys to play with construction toys, while girls are given dolls and are expected to be princesses. Boys are praised for being smart while girls are praised for being pretty. Children learn through play; by having the opportunity to build, boys are able to develop spatial reasoning skills in a way that girls are not. Classroom expectations also vary by gender; for instance, research has shown that math teachers call on boys far more often than girls.
We need more women to bring their talents and energy into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). This process must begin in the elementary school classroom, because by the time they reach middle school it may be too late. Girls may already be discouraged about math and science from earlier negative experiences.
So, the question becomes, how can we encourage more young girls to become interested in careers in the STEM fields?
- Eliminate bias in the classroom. As educators, we have the opportunity to overcome many of the cultural and gender-specific disadvantages girls may face. We need to recognize our own biases and ensure that we establish a fair, equal, engaging and interesting learning environment for both sexes. Engage girls in STEM as much as boys, and expect as much analytical work from girls as you do from boys.
- Change school culture.By fostering a school culture where it’s cool to be in STEM programs, we can encourage girls to be creative, intelligent problem solvers at an early age. Establishing an environment of encouragement and inclusion in our schools is the first step to making this a reality.
- Get collaborative. Consider a weekly construction challenge or problem-solving exercise for your classroom where everyone is involved. Make critical thinking and collaboration the keys to success for these exercises.
- Introduce female role models. Partner with local businesses to find dynamic, engaging women engineers that your girls can relate to and invite them to spend time in your classroom, either in person or remotely via video conference. Providing girls with a motivating role model who can relate to them on their level and answer their questions in an encouraging way can open up a whole new world of possibilities. An ongoing relationship where students can follow a real-world project and better understand what an engineer does helps them to connect the dots and stay engaged in STEM.
- Find outside support. Check with local universities and non-profits to identify extra-curricular opportunities available for girls and young women in engineering. For instance, in the Baltimore/Washington DC region there is an annual event called Cool Careers for Girls in Cybersecurity, which is a field trip for girls in middle school to visit, interview, and interact with practicing engineers. Participants also engage in hands-on learning activities, problem-solving exercises, and learn about career opportunities in the STEM fields. Events like this can start the conversation and open minds to future career possibilities.
- Or do it yourself. If local resources aren’t abundant, consider hosting camps and afterschool programs that encourage the development of software programming (“coding”), pre-engineering, design, and building skills—and encourage girls to join.
- Connect and share. Think about joining a Professional Learning Network (PLN) to get more ideas, share resources, and learn from other educators.
The challenges facing the United States and the world are becoming so complex and interrelated that effective solutions must be built on a solid understanding of both technological and cultural factors. To produce these solutions, we need a generation of engineers who can bring a diverse set of backgrounds and perspectives to bear.
Teachers have a responsibility to prepare students for a future that will be increasingly technological, interconnected and rapidly changing. The time to make a difference is now!
Zulma Whiteford is a Technology and Spanish teacher and STEM Coordinator at St. Louis School in Clarksville, Maryland. Zulma also teaches a Middle School Cybersecurity Camp for girls at the University of Maryland. She is a member of Discovery Education’s Discovery Educator Network(DEN) leadership council, a global community of educators that are passionate about transforming the learning experience with digital media. This is part of a series of articles featuring DEN members, with previous entries focusing on PD for the digital age and ideas for teachers without access to technology.