I’ve written about it before and I’ll write about it again, the U.S. needs more STEM graduates to power our future.   And women can do the powering. 

Women receive about 60% of all undergraduate degrees in the U.S.; however, that is not the story when it comes to STEM degrees. A large gender gap exists. Catalyst, a global non-profit dedicated to helping build workplaces that work for women, provides an excellent snapshot of the gender gap. Women receive 60% of biology and biomedical science degrees and 45% of mathematics degrees; however, less than 20% of engineering and computer science degrees are awarded to women. And, for women of color, the gap is even greater. 

As you can see we have some room to grow, particularly in engineering and computer science. We’re half of the population, right? As I see it, we need women to design and engineer for women – to problem solve – and we need more women to code for women. Ok, they can do it for men as well. So how do we get started to grow the numbers of women in engineering and computer science? We start with girls.

For the last several years of my work in STEM education for girls, we promoted five best practices for educating girls in STEM. I’ll share them with you.  

Taking Risks

We need to encourage girls to take risks, teaching them that failure is not only ok, but a great way to learn. We need to push against the often “picture perfect” world on social media and as Reshma Sunjani (CEO and Founder of Girls Who Code), puts it “we must teach girls to be Brave, Not Perfect.”

Inquiry-based/Project-based Learning

We must engage girls in inquiry-based and project-based learning. Girls love projects and thrive when given the opportunity to be hands on figuring out solutions to inspiring questions. Ask great questions, and girls will provide great answers. 

Tying Learning to a Higher Purpose

Girls have a need to know that their work matters. Ask a boy to write code for a new app and he will take on the project just for the sake of the challenge. Ask a girl to do it, and she will want to know “why?” and “who will it help?” They are looking for a higher purpose. Give them one. 

Building 3D Spatial Skills

Research by Dr. Sheryl Sorby shows there is a gap between boys and girls in 3D spatial skills, which often prevents girls from progressing in STEM. The good news is the gap can be closed. Help girls see the relationship between 2D images and 3D objects and the concepts of rotation and translation. Build with Legos to a specific design. And, pull out the tools in the garage – go build something! Or ask your school to incorporate Dr. Sorby’s curriculum. 

Connecting with Role Models

Girls must be able to see themselves in STEM majors and careers. As I say, “they need to see it to believe it.” I’ve found that women undergrads, graduate students, and women STEM professionals are hungry for opportunities to connect with girls. With a little work and a lot of intentionality, we can get them connected!

Of course, there are many ways to engage girls in STEM. But these five best practices have proven to be a successful framework to engage more girls in STEM and can be a critical tool in closing the STEM gender gap. We have some work to do, please feel free to share these practices!

Photo by Clarisse Croset on Unsplash