How Educators Can Help Close the STEM Gender Gap

How Educators Can Help Close the STEM Gender Gap
Nicole Mace, MEd October 11, 2018

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Although we’ve made progress over the years in regards to the gender gap, when it comes to STEM, there’s still a great deal of work to do. While some might say that girls and women lack the aptitude for STEM professions, that’s definitely not the case. In looking at recent research published by Psychological Science, test scores across 67 countries showed that girls performed about as well as or better than boys on science in almost every country examined, and girls were just as capable of college-level science and math application. So why is there still a gender gap in STEM fields?

Unfortunately, the problem starts with our culture. There exists an often unconscious bias that math and science are “male” fields while humanities and the arts are primarily “female” fields. Movies, television, and the media have also perpetuated this as well as a host of related stereotypes. While we’ve recently seen a shift through the rise in STEM organizations, books, and toys for all kids, there is still a lack of equal opportunities and resources across the board. Gender bias, workplace discrimination, and the gender wage gap all contribute as well.

As teachers, we know the most effective way to create a real cultural shift is to start with the future of our society, our students. That’s right — it all starts in our classrooms, so here are three approaches to closing the STEM gender gap through STEAM.

Harness the power of STEAM

Infusing STEM lessons with art (the “A” in STEAM) promotes creative thinking and innovative problem-solving. The arts also tend to engage a wider range of students, appealing to those who may need an entry point that ties them to the familiar before diving into the unfamiliar.

In our highly technological world of rapid advancement, it’s important to find and appreciate the beauty and the need for the arts. The importance of art in education is often overlooked, especially when schools face financial issues. But with STEAM eclipsing STEM, we’re now collectively reinforcing the power of the arts and recognizing that artistic endeavors help develop much needed soft skills like adaptability, empathy, teamwork, and interpersonal communication.

Design-thinking also encourages natural curiosity and helps attract more students to STEM fields. So it’s time to create learning experiences that give every single student the chance to explore, experiment, connect, and reflect.

Create STEAM projects

Regardless of what subject or grade level you teach, you can create opportunities for more hands-on, STEAM-based learning. Developing these opportunities can seem daunting at first. But we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are quality activities and resources available for educators thanks to the power of the internet. Start by checking out art-emphasized STEAM lessons36 multi-level resources for STEAM learning activities, and how to create a makerspace with basic supplies (no big budget needed).

STEAM projects also give students the opportunity to solve real-world problems. Microsoft conducted a recent study that found that 72% of the 6,000 women and girls polled (ages 10 to 30) said they wanted to have jobs that directly helped make a difference in the world, but only 37% of them thought STEM careers could be creative or improve our world. We have to change that perception so that more girls understand what STEM careers entail and the impact they could have.

Combat stereotypes

Often when we think of leaders and innovators in tech, we first think of well-known figures like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. But there are also many highly successful women in STEM and teaching our students about them helps address stereotypes and preconceived notions that they (or we) might have. The aforementioned Microsoft study also indicated that “Girls who know a woman in STEM were far more likely to say they understand the relevance of STEM, know how to pursue a STEM career, and feel powerful in pursuing a STEM career.”

One great example is Sylvia Acevedo. She recently became the CEO of Girl Scouts and was an engineer for NASA, IBM, and Dell. She aims to raise the Girl Scouts’ profile among tech companies, and some STEM-related badges have already been introduced under her leadership, including coding, robotics, and cybersecurity. Acevedo also just published A Path to the Stars: My Journey from Girl Scout to Rocket Scientist. This memoir is for young readers and has been praised by the School Library Journal, saying it “touches upon a number of salient points for readers including racism, gender roles, and educational inequality.” There are so many other women, past and present, who have impacted and continue to make their mark in STEM fields, but it’s up to us to educate our students to help build awareness.

Another great way to combat stereotypes is to connect your female students with STEM organizations including Techbridge Girls and Girls Who Code, both of which are working to close the gender gap. Research shows that students make a decision as early as second grade on whether they enjoy STEM-based subjects. Therefore, an early connection made with a group of female students thriving in STEM subjects is eye-opening for young girls. Exposure to female role models and education-based organizations will create a new picture of women in STEM for all young minds.

Continue to learn and share the wealth

Understanding how to effectively incorporate STEAM into your curriculum can be a challenge at times, especially when you want to advance your practice. Many educators who grasp the importance of STEAM choose to continue their own professional development by earning a master’s degree in STEM. Some go on to become STEAM curriculum specialists, coaches, and consultants in order to share their knowledge, help other educators, and make a broader impact.

Even if you prefer to stay focused on STEAM in your classroom, it’s important to find ways to share knowledge and participate in the exchange of ideas. Even facilitating a conversation at lunch about STEAM can spark ideas, encourage collaboration, and increase awareness of the inequities and stereotypes that exist and the resources that are available.

Nicole Mace earned a MEd in Educational Technology from Lesley University and a professional graduate certification in instructional design from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She’s spent nearly a decade in education, teaching multiple grade levels in the U.S. and South Korea and working as a lead instructional designer at the college level. Currently, Nicole serves as an adjunct online instructor and a freelance instructional designer. Her website offers key resources for instructors looking to crack the code on quality online instruction.

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