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How schools fuel female STEM participation

Schools can start building students' interest as early as pre-K
Students from Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida meet with the state’s Million Women Mentors chair, second from right, and use an online program to explore STEM careers.
Students from Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida meet with the state’s Million Women Mentors chair, second from right, and use an online program to explore STEM careers.

Adding project-based learning and mentoring opportunities to STEM programs may better ensure that female students do not get left behind.

In the United States, women hold fewer than 25 percent of jobs in STEM fields, despite accounting for 47 percent of the workforce, according to the nonprofit Million Women Mentors.

“It’s really important for us to continue to encourage young girls and women in STEM fields, and the words and actions of administrators really matter,” says Melissa Moritz, deputy director of STEM initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education. “Never underestimate the power you have to encourage more girls to pursue their dreams, which for many could be in a STEM field.”

To close the gender gap, administrators can have females working in STEM fields regularly visit classrooms and host students at their workplace, says Talmesha Richards, chief academic and diversity officer at Million Women Mentors, which aims to get more females to pursue STEM careers.

“We need to open up females’ eyes to the possibilities of STEM, and make sure they know having a STEM career can help them change the world,” Richards says. “Making that real-life connection is key if we want to move the needle quicker.”

Building interest

Moritz and Richards offer the following advice for administrators who want to support female STEM students:

  • Start as early as pre-K. “Kids are born natural scientists,” Moritz says. “Teachers should learn to encourage them to ask questions, explore the world around them, and draw connections between things they see and observe.”
  • Expand teaching methods. Students respond well to problem-based learning, yet STEM subjects often rely on rote memorization. “We need to teach in a way so students are doing STEM, not just absorbing it,” Moritz says. For example, students can learn about physics by building a structure with real materials, instead of just reading about it in a textbook.
  • Challenge media portrayals of STEM professions. Men are depicted as STEM professionals over women 5 to 1 in family films. Men are portrayed as computer scientists 14 to 1 in family films, according to a February White House fact sheet. Make students aware of this stereotype.
  • Build mentor programs with female STEM professionals. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” Richards says. Female students need to see women who are in STEM jobs and understand their struggles to connect on a personal and professional level, and set an example.
  • Reach out to local STEM companies, organizations and nonprofits and ask if female professionals can come speak about their work, and expose students to what a STEM career entails. “A lot of times we find that corporations want to help—they want to build their workforce, and the best way to do that is at the K12 level,” Richards says.
  • Examine your STEM programs to see if the enrollment in classes, clubs and after-school activities mirror the enrollment of females in your school, Mortiz says. Ask female students why they are (or aren’t) interested in STEM. Administrators should use this information to actively encourage females to pursue STEM and to make the programs more appealing.
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