Creating a Beneficial Gender Diversity in STEM Education

by | May 21, 2017

Many girls going through school are still struggling to get interested or excited about STEM education. Within the United States, men currently tend to dominate the technology and engineering worlds, and women are striving to join and stand out. The trouble is that, besides issues of sexism in the AI industry and a lack of representation, women are still struggling with equal-pay and high-paying job opportunities. Without the diversity of having female voices at the table, there is a lack of consideration on how applications might be used, or how problems could be solved.

Without the diversity of having female voices at the table, there is a lack of consideration on how applications might be used, or how problems could be solved. When women have a say in how technology is presented, problems like this can be avoided. It’s well-known that having women join the field of technology doesn’t just improve its image; it also improves the quality of the products.

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Diversity in business, technology, and science leads to greater innovations, stronger community bonds, and an all-around better experience for businesses, creators, and users. With STEM becoming a lead generator for jobs within the US and global job market, it’s up to teachers to help push their students to greatness.

As teachers, we have the ability to influence our students, get them engaged and excited, and motivate them to recontextualize their interests through a STEM lens. Here are some tips to help your learners get excited about the possibilities of a STEM education no matter where they fall on the spectrum of gender.

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1. Encouragement

Two of the biggest deterrents for girls stayit comes to STEM learning is society’s idea of what girls like (“Girls don’t like math, they prefer Home Ec. or English”), and a staunch approach to how STEM education is commonly taught. At a young age, girls are taught to stray away from science and math and pursue topics that “appeal more to their style of learning.” Although this idea might seem truthful to some, many women will raise their eyebrows at it.

Not all women or girls have the same learning style. In fact, many women love the technical side of programming, solving math equations, and fiddling with chemistry formulas, but they are often encouraged not to pursue those topics. Whether that comes from parents, friends, or people within the school environment, STEM teachers should do their best to transform this way of thinking.

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Instead of letting girls get discouraged and uninterested, educators can build a portion of their curriculum that applies directly to girls. Create examples in everyday life that they might be familiar with, and ask them to come up with a solution while utilizing their understanding of STEM. In addition, vary the ways in which STEM is taught in your classroom. Don’t just rely on formulas and what the book discusses, but get creative with real-world examples and community-based efforts to apply STEM.

It is true that not all women or girls approach STEM in the same way, but there is a general understanding that girls might be more interested in a community-based approach to STEM. Much of the teaching methods used now focus on the analytical (how something is programmed), while ignoring the practical applications (how something is used by the general public). By creating a slight shift of the lens, teachers might be able to coax girls to get excited about STEM by showing them how it applies in a more worldly context.

In addition, if you’re a woman who is teaching a STEM-based class, use your personal experience as a way to inspire your learners. By becoming a role-model you can help them visualize themselves in that position and work through any potential setbacks. You can use personal examples to help them understand the importance of admitting mistakes and solving problems. For young girls, especially, this can be a powerful tool for encouragement. In the future, your students will likely recall the impact you had on their young lives as they advance through school.

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2. Engagement

Much in the same way that women within the field need to be given a seat at the table, girls and diverse voices within the classroom need to be given space as well. For teachers, this might be easier said than done, as you can’t force the hands of your students.

The best option is to actively seek out participation from girls in the class. Ask them for real-world examples, or to envision how they would solve a problem. Encourage them to try, even when they aren’t sure. You can also help them enroll in programs—such as after-school, science camp, or summer classes—that suit their interests and expand their understanding of STEM. Ask them questions about their homework, and encourage them to explore the subject outside of school.

If the students are more interested in art and language than they are in STEM, show them ways the two can intersect. Art and science can play so well together, but many students might not be aware of the possibility. 3-D printing is a perfect example, and creating a workshop that explores the intersections between art and STEM can open up new doors and ideas for many young minds.

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Another helpful option during class discussions is to break up the classroom into small groups. Pair up people that wouldn’t normally work together and have them brainstorm ideas. Diverse brainstorming can be surprisingly productive and can provide unique solutions, but can also create conflict. Navigating this conflict during discussions can enrich and broaden a learner’s understanding of the topic, and help them envision a new perspective or strengthen their convictions.

Bringing these different people and perspectives together will help them develop useful skills that they can rely on long into the future. Discussing topics with people who have a different perspective might be difficult, but eventually, through open communication, they are able to find common ground.

Although you don’t have to put all your emphasis into engaging only the girls, you can make an active effort to create diverse classroom discussions, ensure that solutions are explained clearly, and provide real-world examples to keep them engaged.

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3. Create Opportunities

Leaders in education should look into creating additional opportunities for eager STEM students. Scholarship programs, partnerships with businesses, and science camps can all provide extra incentives to girls that are interested in pursuing a STEM career.

Tech businesses that are eager to hire women should seek out schools near their headquarters and provide workshops, internships, and scholarships specific to those STEM students. Not only will this incentivize girls to further their education and build important skills, but it will provide businesses with an opportunity to connect with their local community—a win-win for everyone involved.

In fact, the New York Academy of Sciences did just that in 2014 when they launched the Global STEM Alliance: “a global private-public partnership with industry, academic and educational institutions, government, and the nonprofit sector.” The initiative seeks, through a virtual platform, to “pair students and mentoring STEM experts from around the world.”

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This important program gets students excited about real-world applications of STEM and gives businesses the opportunity to teach kids practical skills that they might not otherwise learn in school or college. The skills gap is a common problem in today’s workforce with recent graduates, and many businesses might be eager to assuage that problem as early as possible.

The University of Cincinnati expands on this new way of utilizing STEM to get children of all backgrounds engaged; from using digital media for learning, to outreaching rural and lower-income communities through modern technology. For many students in rural areas, their school might be their only access to modern technology. Teachers and school leaders can use this as a way to build connections globally with other schools, or even corporations that want to partner with the school and build a relationship with the students. Being within a rural environment no longer has to be isolating or limiting to the education of STEM students.

When it comes to creating opportunities for girls that are interested in STEM, sometimes the best solution is to take matters into your own hands. Create programs that speak to their interests, and continue to support and build up their understanding of everyday applications and how STEM can play a role. Maybe that student you mentored today will start the next STEM summer camp for girls tomorrow.

Creating a Diverse STEM Workforce

STEM education thrives off of diversity, but much of the current workforce within technology shares similar backgrounds: male, middle-to-upper class, and white. This creates a unique challenge for businesses and a wonderful opportunity for educators. To really get women and people with different backgrounds into the STEM fields, we need to start early. Teachers could be the key to unlocking those doors for women and others to really pursue and advance the fields of STEM.

By keeping girls encouraged, engaged, and through collaboration with global businesses, teachers can provide every opportunity available to students that are excited about a future in STEM. Hopefully, we can build a brighter and more diverse future through our efforts, and the children we teach today will have more successful careers because of it.

Katie McBeth is a freelance writer out of Boise, ID. She enjoys reading teen novels, snuggling her pets, and traveling the world of the Pacific Northwest. You can follow her animal and writing adventures on Instagram or Twitter: @ktmcbeth.

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