How Do Schools Deal with the Gender Gap in STEM?

Fields of study in STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – have undergone many changes in recent years. One of these changes has been a shift towards encouraging more women to pursue their interest in STEM fields instead of “leaving it to the boys.” A history of gender stereotyping in technical fields has steered many women away. As a result, there’s a major gender gap in careers like computer programmer and industrial engineer.

Universities, however, are recognizing that the problem begins early on in a student’s academic career. The right kind of encouragement and dispelling of gender stereotypes can potentially lead the way to more balanced representation of women in STEM fields.

More specifically, we wanted to know how universities are working to encourage more women to pursue their interest in STEM education. We got four schools to help us answer that question.

Dr. Bryan Shader

University of Wyoming

Question #1: Many STEM programs are historically male dominated. How do you and your colleagues combat this?

We combat this consciously, in a variety of ways, and with many different audiences in mind. These include:

  • Early and regular activities that expose girls and underrepresented groups (e.g. first generation students) to the joys and intrigue of STEM are critical
  • Equipping the next-generation of K-14 STEM with deep understanding of both the content and the pedagogy of the disciplines
  • Hiring, mentoring, nurturing and celebration of a diverse community of STEM faculty
  • Communicating to parents, teachers, counselors and students the various career pathways to STEM education, and the broad range of career opportunities available for STEM majors

Counseling/mentoring to enable young women to better assess their STEM abilities.

Question #2: What would you say to women who are hesitant to embrace their passion in a STEM field because of the drastic gender gap?

  • Fuel your passion by trying some courses, or getting involved in summer activities.
  • STEM majors are encouraged to be creative, innovative and to improve the world around them.
  • Investigate the possibilities and opportunities in your chosen STEM field. Become informed about the opportunities in the field. Find a current major and faculty member to talk to about your passion-you’ll be delighted by the encouragement you will receive.
  • Find a mentor or two to emulate, and to receive encouragement and advice from.
  • While the gender gap is still significant, it is improving and they can help it improve. There are many STEM-related work places that welcome and support diversity.
  • It is typical that a STEM student will encounter difficulties in his/her studies. When this happens don’t doubt your abilities or career choice, but rather seek out support from friends,

Perhaps more than any other time in history, STEM majors have the opportunity to help the world address some of its most pressing issues.

Dr. Manorama Talaiver

Longwood University

Question #1: Many STEM programs are historically male dominated. How do you and your colleagues combat this?

In Longwood University’s Institute for Teaching through Technology and Innovative Practices, we provide professional development for teachers on integrated STEM and collaborate with Longwood faculty on science professional development. During professional development, educators are constantly reminded about the need to motivate female students to enter STEM fields and so enroll in STEM related courses such as advance math, science, computer science, and CTE.

We provide an annual STEM learning summit (our 8th summit will be in September 2015) where we have at least one session on encouraging females and minorities to enter STEM.

We designed a project for female students after listening to the girls in our NSF funded Digispired program. More than game design, some girls were interested in fashion design. So, we worked with middle school girls in after school program in encouraging them to design artifacts with Lilypad microcontrollers and program them with LEDs. The girls integrated Lilypad in scarves, bags, t-shirts, and caps. Research showed that students who were involved in this project were significantly more positive about their attitude toward engineering and technology compared to girls who did not participate in the after school program. We have also provided similar training to a group 27 girls in New Zealand.

Our next effort is to work with the parents about encouraging girls in STEM as well.

Question #2: What would you say to women who are hesitant to embrace their passion in a STEM field because of the drastic gender gap?

  1. “Look for role models
  2. Speak to your role models and female STEM experts
  3. Guidance Female alumni who are in NASA or an engineering-related businesses can be a motivator

Girls today are more open to the idea of entering STEM (other than health). However, continuous nurturing and mentoring are needed.

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