Smart girls who are interested in STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — are being bombarded by comments and experiences that those subjects just aren’t for them. It’s a growing problem that women who work in those fields are trying to combat.
“We know that 78 percent of school-aged girls have an interest in STEM, yet women only make up 25 percent of the STEM workforce, and that somewhere along the lines we are losing these STEM girls,” said Sandy Marshall, founder of Project Scientist, which aims to reach young girls interested in STEM fields and keep them on track to a STEM career.
Although women are employed in close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Forbes reports that just one in seven engineers is a woman and that only 27 percent of computer scientists are female. Also, women have seen no employment growth in STEM jobs since 2000, Forbes reports.
It’s not only the glaring absence of women in STEM that encouraged Marshall to create Project Scientist, she also personally experienced what so many young girls do.
“I dropped out of a pre-med major due to a lack of role models and gender stereotyping,” Marshall said. “At the same time I had a 4-year-old daughter who was crazy about STEM, and I could not find a summer program that was full-time for working parents and academic enough to fit her needs.”
Project Scientist offers five weeks of summer courses with hand-on experiments, field trips and daily interactions with female STEM role models at the California Institute of Technology, University of North Carolina and Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. If you’re not close to one of those locations, there are still plenty of opportunities to get your daughter into STEM.
“Parents are the biggest influence in a girl’s interest in STEM,” said Marshall, who offers these suggestions:
• Get them interested in the natural sciences. “Research shows that children as young as 4 have an interest in science, and it’s all around them in the natural world,” she said. When you’re out for a walk or even just looking out the window, point out things that make science relative to kids, such as a worm on the sidewalk after a rain or the different shapes of leaves. Ask questions such as “Why do you think this tree has needles but this one doesn’t?”
• Encourage their questions. Girls have a natural curiosity about the world, and scientists are professional question-askers. Let them know it’s OK not to have all the answers, and encourage them to discover and explore.
• Delve into the many science opportunities that are out there. “Over the summer we sign our kids up for reading clubs” but often ignore the STEM courses, camps and clubs, Marshall said. Science museums, zoos and scouting organizations are great places to learn about STEM subjects over the summer. Online, check out PBS’s SciGirls, which features educational and fun videos and games. Steve Spangler Science (stevespanglerscience.com) is a one-stop shop for science gadgets, toys and experiments.
• Science is all around the home. Encourage girls to help measure, analyze, predict and observe in the kitchen, garage, garden and backyard.
• Point out role models. It’s good for them to know that Marissa Mayer is the president of Yahoo, but women in STEM careers are in your neighborhood, too. If you know a female computer programmer or doctor, point her out to your daughter. “It allows girls to think that a STEM career is a possibility,” Marshall said.
• Don’t let them give up. There something called a growth mindset, which says that a person’s most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work and that intelligence and talent are not fixed qualities a person is born with, Marshall said. When math or science are hard for a girl she’ll often say, “I can’t do it” or I’m bad at math.” As a parent, it’s your job to respond with something like, “You’re a great soccer player, but were you always this good or did you have to work for it?”