Over the summer, a small group of female students stopped by Principal Jamie Richardson’s office at LaCreole Middle School in Dallas, OR, to say hello, and it happened to be perfect timing.

Just moments before, he’d been talking about one of those young women as his best example of a girl who wavered about participating in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs, but then ignored peer pressure and the stigma about women in those fields—and thrived. “She decided not to worry about the idea that girls aren’t good in math or that they are ‘nerdy’ if they like science. She really liked robotics and was good at it, so she has stuck with it,” he says.

The student fed her desire by participating in LaCreole’s schoolwide STEAM program—with the “A” representing art—and special summer offerings. Richardson says adding art to the familiar STEM programming may be one reason girls at the school are engaging in those classes at about the same level as boys. It is one of the ways middle level schools are trying to get girls interested in STEM subjects and trying to keep them involved.

“It is always a challenge, but we’ve found that when they are encouraged to try these courses, they enjoy them and do well,” says Richardson, a 2017 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year.

The idea of getting young women to participate in STEM has become a popular goal in education from K–12 through graduate school, but research shows that middle level education is perhaps the most critical period in that effort.

Sonya Hayes, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN, and former middle level principal who has written about and studied the issue, says that while it appears more girls are getting bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields, they aren’t getting into specific jobs in technology, science, or math. Federal data indicates that 58 percent of all bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women, but in STEM fields, 36 percent of diplomas went to women and 64 percent to men. Beyond that, the majority of women STEM graduates pursued degrees in social and life sciences, she says. “So, it appears that the trend still continues of women receiving more bachelor’s degrees overall, but fewer in engineering and technology,” she says.

She also notes that the National Girls Collaborative Project reported in 2018 that women constitute 47 percent of the overall workforce and 28 percent of the jobs in science and engineering.

In K–12 schools, the emphasis by educators to encourage girls to enroll in STEM classes has made young women more aware of the options, Hayes says. However, last year less than one-third of the students taking the AP Computer Science test were girls, and a new survey by Junior Achievement USA showed that 9 percent of girls from ages 13 to 17 were interested in STEM careers, down from 11 percent last year.

Gender Gap Differences

Experts say there are a few reasons why young women have not gotten involved in STEM careers, even as the number of jobs in those fields have expanded broadly—and as those careers have provided some of the best, most exciting opportunities.

Some research shows female students perform as well in those classes and careers as male students, though overall female students perform even better in classes such as reading, which might encourage them to choose the humanities and “soft” sciences.

Two commonly held ideas about the gap are difficult to measure: that our culture suggests that girls aren’t supposed to be good at math or science, or that such subjects aren’t appropriate or acceptable for girls. “It is hard to get girls past that idea that being interested in one of these is not cool,” Richardson says.

Other research suggests that even though schools are doing a better job of introducing girls to science, technology, and math, they move away from those fields as they get older, Hayes says. A 2009 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology indicates that all young people who are interested in STEM at an early age begin to lose interest as they become older, perhaps because of a lack of interaction with mentors and role models in STEM fields.

“My original research included a discussion about how girls show interest and passion in math and science in elementary school but fall out of love with them in middle school,” she says. “The answer as to why this occurs is complex, because it involves brain development, social development, and physical development.”

Peers become more influential for girls at this age, even more than their parents or their own personal interests, Hayes notes, and activities outside of the classroom play an increasingly important role in how their time is spent. Middle level education is when a lot of important decisions about future direction are made—but not always with much thought, and with a lot of distractions.

Some Possible Solutions

To expose all students to these fields, Richardson and his team have developed a program that allows students all to have STEM-related courses. Administrators revised the class schedule and rehabilitated a large, little-used space in the school. Then, they began providing students an opportunity to try things like 3D printing, animation, and engineering design in new ways. The program, which gets top priority at the school, is managed by two teachers—one from art and one from science.

“It has been on our minds a lot—this imbalance in fields like engineering in the real world,” Richardson says. “We thought it was important to do something about it with our girls, but through the whole curriculum.”

Eric Brinkmann, principal at J.R. Gerritts Middle School in Kimberly, WI, has found that offering new types of STEM courses and strongly encouraging girls to participate improves their engagement. Gerritts’ staff also takes time to explain how the courses are connected to careers. “We actively promote our computer science classes during student scheduling discussions and point out their relevance during academic and career planning instruction,” he says.

Aimee Froze, a computer science teacher at Gerritts, says teachers need to stay current with new thinking about STEM and make the subject matter “diverse and engaging” for young women, and relate it to their world and their futures. “There are so many opportunities to show students the need for computer science expertise in every career cluster. We try to show them how computer science serves a meaningful purpose and solves real problems, so they understand that it is more than just coding or game design.”

Beyond restructuring the curriculum and coursework and encouraging girls to take improved STEM-related classes, activities outside of school often are a way to get young girls involved, Froze says.

After the School Day

Extracurricular activities are one of the best ways to give young women an understanding about careers in STEM and improve their knowledge, but Hayes says they have to be carefully developed.

“I think first and foremost, any initiative needs to be well planned, intentional, and supported,” she says. Otherwise girls will lose interest and not gain specific subject knowledge or understanding of the options available—and perhaps be turned off forever. “You need sponsors who are passionate about the subject and full of energy, and able to engage well with kids,” she says. “They need to be able to attract girls from all peer groups and must be talented at making all girls feel accepted.”

Such groups require an extra amount of effort, particularly because of the social pressure girls face and take so seriously at this age, and because they become busy with other activities that they might deem more important. “You have to recruit, recruit, recruit. It requires intentionally focusing on seeking out girls for the classes and clubs through face-to-face conversations and specific invitations,” Froze says. “It is often very important to have them identify a friend they’d like to bring along, too. Providing incentives like T-shirts and free pizza helps to get them engaged and keep them coming back.”

Hayes suggests that organizations should invite professionals in the field to speak, help with projects or competitions, or mentor the participants—providing students with support in homework or investigations of colleges and careers. The groups can also take field trips to workplaces where interesting and perhaps unexpected STEM skills are used, or organize visits to college STEM-related programs.

Bell Middle School in Golden, CO, has had considerable success with getting girls involved in STEM programs, according to Principal Michele DeAndrea Austin, who says their STEM courses now enroll about three girls for every four boys.

It has been as a result of deliberately improving STEM offerings, encouraging young women to take courses, and promoting an after-school “Girls in STEM” club that has become very popular. The club partners with area colleges and businesses for speakers and field trips, takes on interesting projects, and hosts a “hackathon” that involves nearly 50 girls from area middle level schools.

“What makes this club unique is that embedded within it is a partnership with the local library that helps bring our middle school girls in to mentor and guide our local elementary-aged girls in introductory engineering activities a few times per month after school,” DeAndrea Austin says.

Having older girls work with younger students embeds the material for the older students and introduces it to the younger girls from a role model with whom they can identify, Froze says.

It is also important to recognize STEM-engaged young women, Hayes says, whether it is a bit of private praise for speaking up or performing well in a STEM class—or achievement by a female student’s STEM club in a regional competition. “We very intentionally recognize excellence and point out when we see girls doing well in math or science,” Brinkmann says. “It’s also important to create opportunities for them to be recognized for their work, whether through an award or by showcasing their work in a newsletter or sharing it with other students.”

Richardson says that sort of support also can build pride in being a student interested in pursuing STEM subjects, which is critical for the individual student and the overall effort. “It is about building leaders in these subjects in our school, but also so that they maintain that interest and become leaders in these fields,” he says. “In middle school it is tough to be a leader, especially for a girl in STEM, but we want them to work through that. It gives them an opportunity to pursue these subjects, but also be their best selves.”

Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.

Sidebar: Consider employing these six strategies to engage more girls in STEM programs

  1. Build appeal. Consider offering programs and using approaches that introduce female students to STEM through work that might be more appealing based on their experiences. For instance, STEAM programs that incorporate art might be attractive. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development has described this connection, and Edutopia has a list of STEAM resources online. Ask current students what might appeal to them, and ask former students what did and didn’t get them interested when they were enrolled. Poll women in the field about what got them interested early on. Consider tweaks to content as well, and make teachers aware of the effort.
  2. Publicize offerings. Introduce STEM programs in new ways as you recruit students to them, and double down on getting the word out, whether it’s in core classes, electives, or after-school programs. Be sure to acknowledge accomplishments by students or groups. Remind parents and others in the community about the STEM programs for girls, and enlist their support in promotion or providing manpower or resources.
  3. Roll out role models. Experts such as Sonya Hayes, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, say that one of the most powerful ways to get young women interested in science, math, and technology is to have them engage with older students or professionals in the field, especially if they can see their environments—the college lab or the workplace—firsthand. Prepare any presenters about the key points you are trying to make and your goal of engaging young women.
  4. Engage girls outside of class. While many middle level schools are adding STEM courses and promoting them, some schools offer after-school activities specifically designed for female students.
  5. Remember the age. Students this age tend to be impulsive about their choices—whether it is an after-school group they are joining for a few months or a career path (which we often ask them to do as early as middle level education). Spread the word that they should consider those choices carefully. Then, repeat that message in a new way. Remember, social concerns and peer pressure seem to be particularly strong with young girls, so consider those tendencies as you design strategies for recruiting them.
  6. Emphasize the long haul. Research suggests that even when girls become interested in STEM programs at a young age, they lose interest later for a variety of reasons. Recognizing their accomplishments, connecting them with successful women in these fields, and having them reflect broadly on the value of STEM experience and training can help them see the long-term value and stick with the programs.

Sidebar: Share these websites with information about STEM programs for girls—and the entire student body

Girls Who Code: http://girlswhocode.com

Girlstart: http://girlstart.org

The National Girls Collaborative Project: http://ngcproject.org/engaging-girls-in-stem

Microsoft Girls in STEM: www.microsoft.com/en-us/digital-skills/girls-stem-cs

American Association of University Women Hands-On STEM: www.aauw.org/what-we-do/stem-education/stem-programs-for-girls

Society of Women Engineers: http://swe.org/k-12-outreach/swenext

The National Science Foundation: www.nsfresources.org

The National Science Teaching Association: www.nsta.org/stem

The National Education Association: www.nea.org/tools/lessons/stem-resources.html

The U.S. Department of Education: www.ed.gov/stem

The University of Colorado, Boulder: www.teachengineering.org