To our readers: Today, GoodCall® examines the problem of keeping girls interested in STEM education. Earlier, writer Terri Williams reported on research identifying when and why young women lose passion for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Below, Terri looks at efforts designed to reignite the spark for girls in STEM.
Interesting girls in STEM subjects is an important part of closing the STEM gender gap and also the gender pay gap. Because girls often lose interest in science, technology, engineering and math in high school, it’s important to find ways to capture and maintain their attention before they reach these critical years.
Carnegie Mellon University’s Girls of Steel group has figured out a way to not only sustain but increase interest in STEM. George Kantor, senior systems scientist at the university’s Robotics Institute and co-founder and lead mentor of Girls of Steel, tells GoodCall®, “Girls of Steel is a FIRST Robotics Competition (or FRC) team composed of 50 girls from 20 different high schools in the Pittsburgh area.”
Kantor says the girls meet at CMU’s Field Robotics Center, where they design, build, and also program 120 lb. robots. These robots compete against other FRC teams – globally, there are thousands of other FRC teams. “Girls of Steel is also the flagship program in a larger initiative that provides a pipeline of hands-on robotics teams and activities for girls ranging from K-12,” Kantor explains.
Where girls in STEM can draw inspiration
The name “Girls of Steel” was the result of a brainstorming session. “It meshes perfectly with the central image of our logo – Rosie the Riveter with a robotic arm.” A little background: After the men left to go fight in World War II, Rosie the Riveter symbolized the women who stepped in to work in factories performing such jobs as producing war supplies.
Kantor explains, “Rosie’s famous saying, ‘We Can Do It,’ and the symbolism of female empowerment allow girls on the Girls of Steel team to feel that they are making a big contribution.”
The list of the team’s achievements is extensive. “We just competed in the Greater Pittsburgh Regional, at which we won the Engineering Inspiration Award and qualified for Championships in St. Louis on April 26-29.” (Kantor won the Woody Flowers Finalist Award for mentorship.) The team has also earned a trip to the championships every season and won numerous regional awards. “In 2015, we received recognition at the national level for entrepreneurship and media,” Kantor explains.
And while awards and accolades are nice, Girls of Steel has loftier goals. “In hands-on programs like Girls of Steel, girls gain confidence in their STEM skills, and they learn that technical activities are creative and fun,” Kantor says. “We have had a great deal of success in getting girls to pursue STEM after they graduate from our program – over 90% of the Girls of Steel go on to pursue a 4-year STEM degree in college.”
The team also equips girls with a plethora of skills and knowledge. “Girls learn technical skills in programming, electronics, computer-aided design, machining, and welding,” Kantor explains. And he says they also learn how to organize public events, in addition to other business skills such as media outreach and fundraising. “Most importantly, they learn the type of general skills that are important to working in large, interdisciplinary teams, such as problem solving, communication, teamwork, and leadership.”
Another approach: The All-Girls FIRST LEGO League
Nate MacDonald is the co-founder and CEO of Circuit Cubes, which produces electronic building blocks that can be used to teach kids about circuitry. MacDonald also is a former teacher. “As a teacher, I established two all-girls FIRST LEGO League (FLL) robotics teams, which was no small feat given that I had to convince the girls to join.” Soliciting recommendations from math and science teachers was the easy part, but MacDonald said he also had to think of creative ways to get the girls to participate. “I extended individual invitations and also held Girl Ignite evenings to spark interest.
The result? “The two teams eventually did so well that they competed at NASA’s Ames Research Center, and several of those girls have now gone on to apply for engineering degrees.”
MacDonald believes that there are three keys to getting girls involved in engineering:
- “First, you need to personally invite them to join the class, program, or team.”
- “Second, you need to make projects a collaborative effort. When I held elections that singled out a particular girl to be our FLL captain, she immediately wanted to quit the team — and she was the best engineer I had! She preferred being part of a team rather than singled out from the group.”
- “Third, I have found that girls love to solve engineering problems that have a real-life application. For example, I had a group of girls in my engineering class who made a prosthetic hand for a 4-year-old in Fresno, Calif.”
Consistently is another key for keeping girls in STEM. “Once I was able to engage girls in a positive engineering experience, the majority of the girls would come back the following year – whether it was for a robotics team or engineering class.” However, MacDonald says that if the girls were removed from a positive engineering experience for two or more years, they were much less likely to return to STEM subjects.
One of his students, Ella, was the only girl in her high school engineering class, and while she was successful, as a general rule, he believes that girls like to be in classes with other girls.
For girls in STEM, safety in numbers matters
That was certainly the case with Kaelyn Leake, an assistant professor of engineering at Sweet Briar College. As a relatively recent (2009) graduate of Sweet Briar, she can still provide the perspective of a young woman. “My high school programming class had about 25 guys and only two girls, and even if you’re really interested in coding, it takes a lot of guts to take a class where the guys-to-girls ratio is so extreme,” Leake tells GoodCall®. “I suspect girls ask around to see what their classmates are taking and decide not to take STEM classes if no other girls are interested.”
Regardless of how exciting the class might sound, she believes that most girls might feel too uncomfortable to be the only person of another gender. “In my case, the other girl was one of my friends and we decided to take the class together.”
And that’s why Leake believes that all-women’s schools are still relevant. “We create a learning community in which women can be themselves and stereotypes don’t matter.” And she has the stats to support her theory. “It’s pretty well documented that in 1984, 37 percent of all computer science graduates were women,” Leake explains. “Compare that to today, when the rate is around 18 percent – and it’s also true that we went from about 230 women’s colleges 40 or 50 years ago to around 40 today.”
Recent studies reveal that U.S. employers may need foreign labor to fill STEM jobs. That’s a strong argument for needing more girls in STEM. “Women are currently underrepresented in STEM fields,” according to Kantor. “We need more STEM professionals to help solve looming future challenges in areas like energy, food, and water, and currently we are discouraging half of the population from pursuing STEM careers.”