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How Parents, Schools and Mentors Can Help Girls Choose STEM Fields

It was all my dad’s fault. He was an engineer with a special love for design and building. So, whenever he babysat me, he’d hand me a piece of wood, a hammer and some nails to play with while he worked on his projects. I’d happily build wooden structures adding wires, screws- anything I could find in his tool box. Without realizing it, my dad made me feel like I belonged in his world.

A recent University of Washington study addressed the question of why there are less women in STEM( Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields than men. Their research focused on the writings of a group of young women approximately 14 to 20 years of age who expressed that they don’t feel like they belong in these fields that have typically male cultures.

When asked about how parents, teachers and schools could help girls feel more included in STEM fields, University of Washington associate professor of psychology, Sapna Cheyna, said, “Young girls will opt out of (STEM) classes if they don’t feel welcome.  Females know cultural stereotypes exist, so it’s a process at each level, both national and local, to help create an open culture for girls.”

Parent influence

Jessica’s parents knew by the time she was four years old that she had a mind towards math and science. “If she was eating candy, she’d make up math problems with the candies,” said her mom, Jeanie.  “She loved anything to do with space, so one summer we made our living room into the space shuttle for her. Jessica invited  friends over to play in the shuttle.” In high school, they sent Jessica to a week long advanced space camp in Huntsville, Alabama. “That week clinched her desire to work for NASA,” said Jeanie.  Jessica’s dream became a reality after college when she was hired as an aerospace engineer at NASA.

Parents can influence their daughters’ natural interests in STEM.  It could be as simple as handing them tools to build with or sending them to camp to learn about space.  Check out STEM based museums, read STEM books to your daughter or find a beginning STEM class for her to attend. Look for pacesetter colleges that have good cultures for females. Directing your daughter towards these schools could help her choose fields in STEM areas.

STEM in Elementary schools

Science, technology, engineering and math learning experiences at school help girls especially if they feel like they belong as much as boys. In many elementary schools, STEM classes are funneling girls through after school programs.

Bradin and John are George Mason University students who oversee the STEM classes for elementary age students every Thursday after school.  When I asked if there are girls in their STEM classes, John said, “My experience is that there are usually more girls than boys in these classes at the elementary age.”

Bradin agreed, “Even in all the different programs, it’s usually an even balance  even in the different elementary schools.” Their after school classes include Minecraft Moddies, Python programing, Java programing, Introduction to Computer Science and Robotics.

When asked about such after school programs, Cheyna said, “Creating this kind of subculture where there is an equal feeling for boys and girls can help girls feel welcome in STEM at a young age.” It’s one small step for girls to both learn about and feel equally welcome in STEM.
Mentors inspire

After graduation, Amy moved to Washington, D.C. to work for a White House economics program.  As the computer age dawned, she learned computer science technology which led to her developing an economics software program that kept track of overseas governments’ finances.  Her boss became a mentor to both Amy and her husband. “Both of my parents were high school dropouts for different reasons so there was really nothing at home that provided motivation to go into computer science or technology. My boss inspired and motivated me to stay in the computer science field. I was the only woman working in the computer science department for those fifteen years.” Today Amy works as an elementary school librarian inspiring young girls to pursue their STEM dreams.

Change is hard

Helping girls feel like they belong in the more male dominated STEM fields is an uphill battle that needs to be waged by parents and educators.

“It takes time to change culture,” said Cheyna. “It needs to happen at the both the local and national level.”

One local elementary school hired two female STEM teachers.They serve as vital role models for young girls who will, as they get older, encounter a more typical male culture in STEM fields especially the computer science and technology fields.
STEM Literature

Author, Andrea Beaty, is paving the way in STEM literature with her three books fun to read books. Iggy Peck-the Architect,

Rosie Revere-the Engineer and Ada Twist-the Scientist. Young girls may find that they have a lot in common with Iggy, Rosie and Ada.

Lasting legacy

Even though I never pursued a STEM field, I love all things related- no doubt because of my dad’s influence. A couple of months before he died, my dad taught me how to solder. He said he felt like it was something I would enjoy. Once again, he was making me feel like I belonged in his world of STEM.

Jennifer Hinders is a freelance writer, blogger and editor. She lives outside Washington DC with her husband and crazy dog, Sam. Check out her writings at jhinders.com
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