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STEM and Girls: The Gender Gap

Getting girls involved with STEM learning has been a constant challenge for educators and a concern for policy makers for a number of years. Belinda Palmer, in her blog post for Fast Company, renewed the call for more focus on supporting girls’ interest in technology careers.

The gender gap in STEM professions remains wide, but fortunately, there are many good ideas and resources available for teachers looking for creative learning opportunities targeted to girls in STEM areas.

Policymakers often cite the concern over the growing demand for STEM-educated workers as a reason to encourage greater participation of girls in STEM programs. According to a 1999 National Science Foundation, women are disproportionately less likely to pursue science or engineering degrees. Moreover, according to the National Center for Education Statistics in 2010, women only account for 50% of the workforce but less than 20% are in science and engineering fields. Despite the need, there are a number of challenges educators face to attract girls into science-related fields.

The design of a successful STEM program for girls (especially for the middle school years) has to take into account how girls learn as well as the subject matter. In a 1992 report, the American Association of University Women found that while girls and boys initially have similar interest in STEM content, girls’ interest drops precipitously by upper elementary and middle school grades. In 2004, the National Science Foundation found that girls are drawn to math and science through cooperative settings rather than competitive learning environments. A 2004 American Association of University Women report indicated that girls respond more favorably to the social aspects of coursework. A key component of a good STEM program for girls enhances learning through teamwork and social interaction.

Peer group dynamics also have significant impact on how adolescences engage in learning – especially for girls. Teachers may want to look for instructional design that can leverage the importance of relationship building and incorporate a social aspect into the learning experience. The opportunity to take advantage of adolescent girls’ willingness to explore new ideas in pursuit of greater self-identity, while creating a comfortable group work environment, represents an opportunity for female students to learn in a deeper and more intensive manner.

There is widespread interest in this country for building and supporting STEM-centered programs for girls. To be successful however, educators need to account for the particular ways girls engage in learning. A good quality program will need to acknowledge the social aspects of learning and encourage girls to lean on their natural inclinations in pursuit of greater subject mastery.

For teachers looking for resources of high quality, girl-focused STEM programming that incorporates many of the attributes highlighted above, I recommend the following resources:

If you have, other resources or weblinks, please share them in the comments.

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Solomon Menashi spent the first part of his professional life running a highly-successful, high-tech manufacturing firm. For the past 10 years, he’s been working in education — teaching, leading, and learning. He is founder and Executive Director of Mindsurfers, which focuses on building the confidence, skills and enthusiasm of underserved students in the fields of science, technology, math and engineering. Solomon holds an Ed.M from Harvard University Graduate School of Education. You can also follow him on Twitter at #mindsurfers.

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