As a science teacher, keeping girls in STEM is something I strive for. A few years ago, my school was fortunate enough to have a Techbridge Girls after-school program. Techbridge Girls is a nonprofit organization focused on keeping girls in STEM. It provides role models, families, and organizations with training, curriculum, and support to girls in undeserved areas.
The co-teacher of the after-school program was a female college student who shared her own struggles and successes in the STEM field. The curriculum included the girls adjusting the design of a robotic wooden dinosaur until it could walk a short distance without falling over, disassembling a hair dryer to determine what made it work, properly soldering five locations on an electronic circuit board, and engineering a gumball machine. I witnessed the girls' confidence grow as the weekly tasks increased in difficulty. With each struggle, they needed to find their own solution and with each solution, they found success. The experience gave them a glimpse of what their future could consist of.
By Denise Nuno
1. Pique Their Interest
A Microsoft survey found that even though girls in Europe were interested in STEM subjects around age 11, their interests waned around age 15. As teachers, how can we bridge this gap?
Each school year, I put technology and engineering in my students' hands to pique their interest. One lesson I use in my class to get girls excited about STEM involves solar cells. Photosynthesis is a complex process, and to help my students learn about it in more depth, we look at how light energy is converted into mechanical energy when a solar cell is connected to a simple motor. Then we compare it to the conversion of light energy into chemical energy in plant cells' chloroplasts. The students also make other connections, like observing how the motor moves when the solar cell is exposed to light and stops when the light is blocked.
When I listen to the girls explaining these phenomena, I also hear them asking questions like: "What will happen to the energy if we connect our solar cells to more solar cells?" "Well," I tell them, "ask other groups if they are willing to combine their solar cells together and find out!" I see it in their eyes: The girls are enjoying the task, and are excited about science, which then leads to a continued desire to learn and explore different STEM topics and activities.
2. Extend Learning Opportunities
It's important to show girls their potential in the technology world. Hour of Code is a program I've implemented during one school day for the past five years. Watching the Hour of Code's video clips of famous female athletes, mentors, and scientists sharing their perspectives on coding offers girls in STEM classes a glimpse into the possibilities. The next step for the girls is to try their hand at it by tackling the basics of coding (or more advanced skills) depending on the students' abilities.
I also like to bring speakers from STEM fields into the classroom. It's important to add variation among the speakers so students can see a wide spectrum of backgrounds. One time I chose an electrical engineering college student who was home for winter break. She shared college successes and challenges, and her own expectations of her future. The confidence expressed was contagious, and the girls were enthused.
Another time, I invited Julie Yu, a staff scientist from the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Julie is an extraordinarily intelligent and witty person, and she easily gained the girls' trust through genuine interest. Julie had them engaged on an engineering project: a model of the repeat mechanism of a clock. Listening to the girls' questions and showing them the potential they have to succeed in a male-dominated field made this time spent with Julie an eye-opening experience. To find speakers, ask friends who have college-age STEM students, talk to parents, and contact nearby museums and colleges.
3. Create Engaging Lessons
Having plenty of hands-on and technology-based lessons offers girls opportunities to see how science can relate to their world. But if you lack the proper resources for a big project, Physics Girl videos are just the thing! Creator Dianna Cowern shares fun videos and other materials for science teachers to share with their students, especially young girls. Seeing a woman, a software engineer, explaining physics, adds to their realization that there are possibilities for girls in STEM fields.
A continued increase in women pursuing careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math begins in the classroom. Educators need to make a concentrated effort to keep girls engaged in STEM by providing an encouraging environment in the classroom and daring them to look for opportunities outside of the classroom as well. The effort is rewarded when you receive that email or visit from a student and she wants to say thank you.