School may be out for the summer, but now is the ideal time to continue education beyond the classroom walls, especially when it comes to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). According to Afterschool Alliance, not only do kids spend less than 20 percent of the hours they’re awake in the classroom, but 80 percent of future jobs will require literacy in STEM skills, such as problem solving and critical thinking.
As STEM advocates attempt to build a more diverse workforce, particularly by bridging the gender gap, more attention is being placed on the education of young girls in the sciences.
Last February, GoldieBlox, a toy company with a mission to “disrupt the pink aisle”, debuted a Super Bowl commercial that sparked conversation around the need for toys that “introduce girls to the joy of engineering at a young age.”
“When I did my first engineering class, I didn’t think I would ever like engineering,” GoldieBlox founder Debbie Sterling told Fast Company. “But when we were building contraptions and mechanisms it was fun; I felt like a kid again, I was playing. I knew that if I made it interesting to girls, they would feel it, too.”
GoldieBlox isn’t alone in their pursuit to make engineering fun for girls. Just last week, Lego announced plans to launch a new set called “Research Institute,” which features female scientist figurines — a chemist, an astronomer, and a paleontologist — and was the winning idea of its crowdsourced “Lego Ideas” competition.
Organizations like Girlstart offer week-long summer camps focused in the sciences. From exploring animal habitats to designing a theme park, the programs aim to provide more individualized experiences for girls as they explore STEM in an informal and fun environment.
We spoke with Kate Goddard, the Outreach and Online Communications Manager for National Girls Collaborative Project, about why this hands-on education is so important and how instilling a passion for the sciences in girls at a young age can help transform their outlook on pursuing a STEM career.
How does the National Girls Collaborative Project help young girls pursue a career in STEM?
[The NGCP] provides a network, training, and mini funding opportunities to support local [STEM] programs and organizations. We really foster collaboration amongst programs and [bring together] all of the different stakeholders involved: it’s schools and after schools, industry and government officials, universities and affiliations, etc. It’s about bringing all these different women together at the same table to talk about how to increase opportunities for girls to get into STEM.
What is the importance of starting inspiration and education of STEM for girls at a young age?
There’s this attitude that girls don’t see themselves as good in science. It’s an attitude that they have where they say they’re bad in math and they’re not good in science and so they give up early. That tends to happen in adolescence, where they stop seeing themselves as wanting to do science and math because they’re not doing as great in it. Girls are less apt to continue to do something if they’re not getting rewarded in it or feeling like they’re good in it.
I think [we need to] change the way we talk about what it means to be good in STEM, because I think so much of what STEM is about is trial and error, testing different ideas out, and failing. We talk a lot [at the NGCP] about having a growth mindset and saying, “It’s okay that you are challenged by this, but that you can continue to pursue it.” Really instilling those ideas in young girls is important so that they can persist and can continue down that path.
What strategies have you seen work best for engaging young girls with the STEM fields?
We know that a lot of where girls grow interest is in middle school, so we tend to see that a lot of our programs that are pretty active and pretty involved are in that middle school age group; that’s where a lot of the programs that are aggressive in keeping girls interested and engaged happen. A lot of our programs are more offered in that kindergarten through 8th grade realm because there are more opportunities to do more informal learning during school time, where as once you hit high school it becomes a little more rigorous when you’re trying to pursue a STEM career.
Why do you think there is a lack of women in STEM?
[Young girls need to] see women in STEM careers and engage with them so that she can put some perspective into what it means to go into a STEM career, outside of this kind of geeky, white lab coat stereotype that people have. Role models are one way to really help engage women, and that’s at all levels. Even mentorship when young women are entering the field, so they have someone who is helping them navigate that career path, is important all the way through.
But there are also much bigger cultural and societal issues at hand that are preventing women in minorities from really pursuing those careers as well. And I think that’s a more complicated question that we’re all trying to look at and really figure out. How do you really engage those underrepresented groups in really meaningful ways and encourage them to go into the workforce when they have a lot of barriers to cross over?
What challenges do we need to overcome to reach a future where women are equally represented in STEM?
Our mission is to get to the equity tipping point. We’re always looking at when that is going to happen and if our work will be done. What does it mean if we actually get to that? I really truly believe that the only way to really equalize the playing field is to have all of those stakeholders — those that are in industry, in business, those that do represent universities and education, those that represent K-12 and academics — working together to talk about how girls navigate the pipeline, because they’re going to interact with all of those stakeholders in some way. But there’s a lot of opportunity to be lost along that way.
There’s always the leaky pipeline — there’s a lot of ways to fall away from the STEM career, so what are we doing collectively, as a group, to really help girls navigate and pursue STEM careers? [Collaboration] is one step in the right direction of bringing those people together so that they are aware of each other and we are supporting each other’s work; that we’re connecting the dots so that a girl isn’t on her own; that we’re helping her pave that pathway more easily.
Images courtesy of Alatariel Elensar and EdLab Group 2014