Two girls and a science experiment

For the many achievements in women’s equality in STEM professions, we still have a long way to go. Children internalize stereotypes about who is good at and interested in STEM fields at an early age, and these stereotypes may influence their decision-making around what careers they consider.

However, educational research has shown signs of hope. While the above study proved that first grade girls hold the stereotype that boys are better at programming and robots, providing these girls with a positive programming experience increased both their interest and confidence in their programming abilities.

Knowing this, how can we best use the research to support girls’ interests in STEM career paths? Here are four research-backed ways to support the STEM interests of girls in your classroom.

Foster a Sense of Belonging

Feeling as if you belong as a member of a group can increase interest and persistence in STEM for everyone from preschoolers onward. Comparing STEM majors to students who dropped a STEM major, those who dropped their major are more likely to report that they felt like they did not belong in their original major.

Women, especially women of color, are more likely to report these feelings of not belonging. Thankfully, creating social environments where girls have access to role models and peers with similar interests has the potential to increase their sense of belonging.

Fostering a more welcoming social environment for girls in sciences is important and many ways you can help. You could sponsor a science club at your school and encourage girls to join, or decorate your classroom with posters of racially diverse female scientists. Additionally, you can choose a book on a woman in STEM for an English Language Arts assignment.

Promote a Growth Mindset

STEM fields require students to have the confidence to take risks and try difficult things without feeling as if a failure is a reflection on their intelligence. This poses a challenge, as girls and women consistently self-report lower self-esteem than boys and men.

While complementing a student on how smart they are may seem like a good way to boost their confidence, research shows this kind of compliment can actually lead them to fall into the trap of a fixed mindset, or the idea that intelligence is an inherent and unchangeable personal quality.

A student who believes her intelligence is a fixed quantity will be more likely to feel she has to prove it, and will struggle with feeling empowered to take risks that might make her seem foolish. On the other hand, a student who believes her intellect is capable of growth through hard work will be more likely to persist in the face of challenges.

Instead of giving compliments on general intellect, promote a growth mindset by praising students for taking academic risks, such as sharing an idea when it might make them look silly, or asking a question they think everyone already knows the answer to. Help students reframe their perspective by guiding their language from “I’m not good at this” to “I’m not good at this yet.” When students are struggling, remind them that obstacles and mistakes are a normal part of the learning process.

Make Sure Everyone has a Voice

From deep dives into the dynamics of a single elementary school classroom to surveys of college-level humanities courses, a trend emerges. Whether by self-confidence or unconscious teacher bias, boys and young men speak more in class.

Try using facilitation structures that promote equality to make sure girls’ voices are heard. For instance, ensure girls get an equal share of the conversation by pulling popsicle sticks with students’ names to solicit answers, rather than calling on raised hands. If you do want to call on raised hands, don’t call on the first hand you see. Waiting a few seconds increases the likelihood that students who don’t usually assert their voices may speak.

Additionally, when facilitating turn-and-talk conversations, set a time limit for each conversation partner. The first person gets a minute to talk while the other listens, and then they switch roles. Making sure that girls get an equal chance to speak in the classroom can promote a sense of belonging and gives peers a chance to see their fellow female classmates engaged in STEM. 

Highlight Human Impact

Studies have shown that helping students make a connection to how STEM makes a difference in the community is a great way to increase girls’ interests in these fields. One easy way to show the societal value of science is by highlighting the work of STEM professionals whose work has had a positive impact on their communities.

Survey your students on what community issues they are most passionate about for a more involved intervention. You can provide examples, such as alternative energy sources, making cars safer, or protecting rainforest through sustainable farming practices, but encourage them to add their own ideas as well. Then present activities and assignments related to the social issues your individual learners are most interested in.

Keep Learning

While we have our work cut out for us in making STEM fields more open and welcoming to girls, there are tangible things educators can do to actively support girls’ interest in STEM careers. Together, we can create a more inclusive STEM workforce, increasing diverse perspectives and innovative solutions to address the complex problems facing us all. To learn more and continue your journey, check out this infographic with additional tips from the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences.