Tips for Teachers and Classroom Resources

How to Attract High School Girls to STEM Classes

By The Editorial Team

Females are statistical MIAs  in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) classes and careers, which has led to a dangerous under-representation of women in those fields. The National Foundation estimates that only 4 percent of the workforce are in STEM careers, but this group is crucial for economic innovation and productivity. The lack of women in STEM jobs has led to potentially harmful situations. For example, when a primarily male team designed airbags, they did so for male bodies only. This led to deaths in women and children that may have been prevented had more women been involved in the design process.

Many of the girls in middle school who choose to take STEM classes frequently opt out in high school and then do not consider majoring in a STEM program in college. Getting girls interested in these classes in high school can help them become interested in STEM degrees in college and increase the number of female scientists in STEM.

Getting females into STEM

In a 2009 poll, 24 percent of boys between the ages of 8 to 17 said they were interested in pursuing a career in engineering, but only 5 percent of girls in that age group also expressed an interest. Another poll found that 74 percent of college-bound males between the ages of 13 to 17 expressed an intention to major in computer science or computing, yet only 32 percent of the girls in the age group said the same. Girls’ interest in science or math careers begins to wane in early adolescence. Teachers and school administrators in high school may be able to turn around the decreasing interest by addressing a lack of confidence in girls’ ability to succeed in STEM classes and a lack of knowledge about what STEM careers entail.

Girls who graduate from high school tend to enter degree programs in life sciences, social sciences and humanities instead of STEM programs, even the girls who excel in math. Access to classes and receiving good grades is not enough to get girls interested.

Girls tend to assess their math ability lower than boys even when they have the same level of achievement. Girls also hold themselves to a higher standard in math and science, subjects that people believe boys are better at generally. These beliefs create a false assumption that girls are less likely to succeed in STEM careers. Research shows that females begin to lose confidence in their math and science abilities in middle school but it worsens in high school. Correcting these false beliefs may encourage high school females to take math and science courses.

Historical data does show that boys were better in math than girls, but this has changed in the past few decades. Girls are now performing equally to their male counterparts in high school math. Girls are earning credits in math and science at the same rate as their male peers and their grades are slightly higher. Making girls aware of their gender’s success in science and math curriculum could make them more excited about taking upper level courses. It may improve their performance as well, which could help keep girls in STEM classes.

Choosing a STEM career

Another obstacle to females being interested in STEM classes is that most women prefer careers that directly benefit people. Educating women on the benefits of certain STEM sub-disciplines, such as environmental engineering and biomedical engineering, may attract more women into STEM fields.

Teachers may be able to increase the interest of girls in STEM by including information about the lives of women in STEM fields. A 2009 study found that girls in middle school who were shown a 20-minute narrative that described the lives of female engineers and the benefits they enjoyed made the girls more interested in engineering. Showing videos or discussing the responsibilities and the day-to-day lives of women in STEM careers may boost high school girls’ confidence in their ability to succeed in those fields.

Another study aimed at female minority students in high school found that educating girls about how engineers contribute to society and the duties of engineers improved interest. The girls had no knowledge of engineering before the study. After two years, 80 percent of the girls still in the study expressed serious interest in pursuing an engineering career.

Teachers can also get girls interested in engineering by introducing them to the Engineer Your Life website. The interest of high school girls in engineering was shown to increase in 88 percent of girls involved in a 2009 study.

Making STEM classes more attractive to high school girls may simply be a matter of improving their confidence and letting them know how important it is that women enter STEM fields. Girls can make important contributions to society by pursuing a career in STEM careers.

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