Did you know research shows the interest in engineering and STEM decreases for girls as they move into the upper grade levels in school? Supporting girls in STEM has also been found to be a key factor in keeping girls interested in mathematics and the sciences.
Recent information from the Department of Labor Statistics forecasts that the largest job and demand growth will be in the technology fields between now and 2030.
A study conducted by Microsoft in partnership with KRC Research, related to engineering activities and STEM education, indicated that even with increased exposure for girls to STEM education, interest in engineering and STEM-related jobs did not increase as expected.
The reasons why the interest in STEM dropped off as girls got older:
- Lack of role models
- Peer pressure (Perhaps it wasn’t “cool” to be a girl in STEM?)
- Support from parents
- Support from teachers
What can parents, teachers, and mentors due to support girls in STEM?
We interviewed one of our team members here at The Homeschool Scientist, Elaine, about her pursuit of a STEM career. Elaine is a homeschool graduate who is currently studying biology (with a focus on genetics) in college and serving as a Learning Assistant and tutor for several biology professors. She also tutors biology courses for the university’s Academic Success Center. Elaine was diagnosed with dyscalculia, a learning disability that affects one’s mathematical skills, making it a challenge to apply mathematical concepts. Since chemistry and math are part of her coursework, Elaine has had to put extra focus on her math skills while in college.
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Supporting Girls in STEM: 10 Key Things To Do Preschool to College
Below are the questions we asked Elaine about being a girl in STEM. Her responses provide a nice list of 10 things we can all do to support more girls in STEM careers. The support starts young!
How Can Girls in STEM Prepare in High School for a Science-Related College Major?
1. Read and Read Some More
It’s essential to invest time in reading about what interests you. Always ask “Why?” even if the answer seems obvious because there is still at least one detail you don’t know. Develop a habit of delving deep into a topic. This tenacity will serve you well in your STEM future because you will be engaged in research once in college and beyond. Digging deeper and reading are a part of the coursework and labs in college.
2. Take Your Science and Math Courses Seriously
This one is fairly self-explanatory. If you are struggling in a math or science course, get help. Find a family member, friend, or tutor to help you. Do not be too proud to admit you need some hep.
Take as many of these courses as you are able. Consider using some of your high school electives for some science courses like Astronomy, Advanced Biology, Forensics, or Advanced Chemistry, to name a few. Look at science and math as more than just fulfilling graduation requirements. If you are very interested in an area of science or math, use the time in high school to gain as much knowledge as possible.
If science and or math come easy to you, look into honors classes, but also consider your schedule. Be aware of how much you can handle. If you enjoy doing the extra work involved with honors classes, then go for it. You will get to dig deeper into a topic. However, if you already have a heavy class load, in addition to work or other activities, learning to balance your commitments and schedule your class assignments and study time is a crucial part of college, regardless of your major.
3. It’s important that girls in STEM know proper lab etiquette, how to do labs, and how to write a lab report.
High school lab reports are not as involved as college-level lab reports. However, it’s important you have written high school lab reports correctly. It’s also important to have experience using a microscope and know the parts of a microscope and what they do. Lastly, make sure you know lab etiquette. This includes how to handle special situations like broken glass, spills, contaminations, and more.
- This is an excellent resource about proper lab etiquette. Be familiar with procedures for spills, contaminations, broken glass procedures. But, also ask your professor about their specific lab etiquette for these occurrences.
- Here is a good video from Apologia on how to write a lab report.
- Know how to use a microscope and the parts of a microscope. Amscope has some good resources.
4. Gain work experience in high school.
Get a job, volunteer, or pursue an internship in an area of interest. However, even if the work is outside what you want to pursue in college, you will understand how parts of our world are interconnected. My interest in high school was theater. I enjoyed a three-year internship with a local theater company. While outside my biology interest, I learned that the best actors were always knowledgeable in other theater topics. This applies to pursuing a career in STEM; it is beneficial to have some knowledge of chemistry, physics, biology, etc., regardless of your area of focus. So, read about a wide range of science-related topics.
Plus, the work experience will help you weed out what you do and do NOT want to do as your life’s work.
5. Develop Strong Communication Skills
There are some excellent research, teaching, and summer opportunities available during undergraduate and graduate study for girls in STEM. These opportunities are also available outside the university through state internship programs, museums, or private companies. You will need to write essays, complete lengthy applications, and conduct phone and Zoom interviews. It’s important to effectively communicate your interests, what you can contribute, and why you want to pursue a specific opportunity. If part of the job involves teaching or tutoring, you most likely will be asked to conduct a sample lesson. An essential part of that is being prepared and confident in your communication.
I participated in theater, attended theater camps, memorized monologues, and participated for several years in an English-speaking competition. At the very least, memorize passages and perform them in front of family or friends so you get used to being in the spotlight and speaking.
You will also need to have strong writing skills to complete lab reports with the ability to pay attention to details.
6. Have a Resume Ready
Congratulations! You made it through the college application and into college. Once you start taking classes in your area of interest (which may not be until your second or third semester, depending on the school’s requirements), you will begin to have more conversations with teaching staff. As they get to know you and your level of interest, you may hear about opportunities within the department for tutoring, research, or internships. Having your resume written, proofed, and ready will make it easier for you to follow up on these opportunities.
As you participate in these opportunities, immediately update your resume. As time passes, you may forget key accomplishments or tasks that could be relevant when applying for the next position, internship, or even graduate school. So many opportunities are opening up for girls in STEM, don’t miss an application deadline because you have to create a resume.
What are Some Ways Parents and Teachers Can Support and Encourage More Girls in STEM?
7. Teach about important women and girls in STEM
Many contemporary young girls and women in the sciences serve as role models. Women played an instrumental role in discovering what DNA looks like, what radioactivity is, and how we got the first Americans into space. NASA just landed another exploration vehicle on Mars and women are involved in the project. There are a lot of video interviews with contemporary women scientists, listen to their stories. You probably know a woman who is a biologist, chemist, or engineer; interview them and learn about their educational and career path.
It’s cool to be one of the girls in STEM, get to know some of those who have gone before you and see where their studies and work took them…it’s fascinating!
8. Allow and encourage girls to explore interests such as physics, chemistry, biology, etc.
Provide plenty of opportunities to observe, question, read, research, journal, and discuss. Listen to hear their perspectives and questions about science topics.
- Spend time outdoors in nature. Observe, ask questions, draw what you see. Allow time to be curious and to discover.
- Other things to do outside:
- Collect rocks, dandelions, leaves, sticks.
- Build a toad habitat with rocks, dirt, and plants.
- Visit local nature trails and really observe – look for lichen, study pond habitats, identify new wildflowers, study where wild mushrooms are growing.
- Use plant and tree identification apps
- Look for lizards and skinks around your home, follow where they go and learn about their habits.
- Sit quietly and watch birds. Put up feeders and observe. You’ll discover fun things about how bird parents teach their babies to feed and bathe or what birds feed on the ground, which will go to the feeder, who prefers nuts vs those who prefer seed.
- Even at the preschool level, tap into their natural curiosities:
- Provide a bowl of water and items from the spice rack. Have them mix and stir and observe. Add food coloring (with supervision, of course).
- Build tall towers or the sturdiest bridge with wooden blocks or Legos.
- Read science-related books together. I loved field guides and still have some of my childhood field guides on my bookshelf at college! I also loved the Dover coloring books. Even in high school, a good human anatomy coloring book is an interesting and visual way to learn vocabulary.
- Backyard Animals
- The Birdwatchers Coloring Book
- This horse one was my all time favorite! (During my, “I’m going to be a horse vet when I grow up” phase!)
- A more advanced one used in high school when studying the human body.
- One of my favorite things we did each year was raise butterflies and ladybug larvae.
- Provide learning opportunities that might seem above grade level. For example, don’t wait until high school to do dissections. Start with an owl pellet in early elementary years. These are fascinating and provide an interesting insight into what owls eat. (Owl pellets are regurgitated food the owl did not digest fully. They are not feces.) I remember doing a crayfish dissection alongside my brother, he was 15, and I was 6!
I also tagged along with my brother at his FIRST Lego team meetings, and eventually was on a Junior FIRST Lego team startig at age 7. Our Jr. FLL team turned into a year-round co-op and we used a variety of resources to learn about simple machines, physics, and basic engineering (like gearing up and gearing down). Here are some of the kits we used:
- Check out experiment books from the library and spend time every week just doing experiments. Look for experiment kits on sale, at garage sales, at curriculum swaps, or at the dollar store. Here are a few books that we used:
- Allow your child to go beyond the experiment. Once your child has followed the steps of the experiment, chances are they will want to try something else…go in a different direction. As long as it is safe, let them explore their scientific questions.
- Have a shelf, closet, storage bin, or cabinet with science and art-related items or kits. Some of my favorite kits were animal-related kits that also incorporated arts and crafts:
- Here are some STEM-related activities and experiments of interest:
9. Encourage girls to get involved in science classes, competitions, and teams.
There are many wonderful opportunities for girls in STEM to participate in activities such as: FIRST Lego League, FIRST Robotics, local science fairs. With COVID restrictions in place, there are online science fairs. Check out the Junior Master Gardener and 4-H programs.
Given your dyscalculia and people’s tendency to believe you can’t struggle in math and be in a science-related career, what would you tell those who do struggle in math about pursuing a science degree?
Pursuing science while being “bad” in math is hard, BUT not impossible.
There are runners with prosthetic legs and even the great Ludwig van Beethoven was deaf while still composing and playing beautiful music. If science is where you feel drawn, despite all mathematical setbacks you may have, pursue it as far as your heart will take you.
Humans, like all other creatures, can adapt and overcome. So too can those who struggle in math come to be excellent scientists.
My mentor in the biology department has admitted his math struggles, and he has achieved his goal to be a college-level professor! As a tutor, I have worked with many students who struggle with math; there is no shame in struggling.
Never let the belief that all scientists are also excellent mathematicians stop you.
So if you’re like me and struggle with even the most basic of math, do not let yourself get in the way of your happiness and success. Find the resources to help you; they are out there. Never be afraid to admit when you’re struggling, nobody in science is going to look down on you for being bad at math; more often than not, they have been in a similar situation as you. So, keep going!10
10. If you struggle with math in college, here are some options:
- Check out the tutoring services available through the school’s academic success office. Don’t be shy about asking for help.
- If your professor has a learning assistant available during class, take advantage of the resource.
- Talk to your advisor about math course options. Chances are they have advised other students who have had the same or similar struggle.
- If you suspect dyscalculia, ask your student affairs office for testing information. Some universities offer a significantly reduced rate for testing via student psychology services. Once you have a confirmed diagnosis, you can work to obtain some course accommodations from the course instructor.
- Talk with other students or staff, as they may face a similar or the same learning difference. They may share a study strategy that you can try or adapt. This is what I have been able to do to recall information and solve chemistry equations.
A professor once told me, “There are no pink bows and blue ties in science.” Your gender does not determine whether you are able to pursue a science career. What’s important is your will and what you want to uniquely contribute to the study of science, which is why it’s important to always be reading, researching, investigating, delving deep into topics, and pursuing “Why?”
Over the years, we have explored STEM in many ways here at The Homeschool Scientist. Here are a few activities and resources to check out with your daughter.
STEM Scholarship Resources:
12 Scholarships Designed for STEM Students from Petersons.com
Scholarships from Women in Aviation International– for engineering