Girls in STEM Fields

Teachers play a key role in helping girls realize that entering STEM careers is not only possible but necessary.

It’s no secret that the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields lack gender and racial diversity. A lot of work has been done lately to fix that problem, and some laboratories around the country have been reaching out to young women for quite some time. Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois is one of those places. For the past 28 years, Argonne has hosted the Science Careers in Search of Women event, during which girls interested in STEM fields from all over the Chicago area come to Argonne to view poster presentations, listen to speakers and tour labs in order to expose them to STEM careers they might not have known even existed.

I was fortunate to take two of my female students to this year’s event; it was amazing. At my school, elective STEM classes are often full of boys; teachers are lucky to have one or two girls sign up. And those girls tend to drop out or look for other electives, either because the class doesn’t offer the academic and emotional support they need or because they just feel too isolated to continue. This phenomenon funnels girls who might be interested in STEM into other fields where women are more widely represented.

When my students walked into the event and saw that they were surrounded by girls who shared their interests in STEM fields, their eyes lit up. Just seeing that they were not alone was empowering for them, and being able to tour labs on Argonne’s campus and talk to scientists who work there helped them realize that eventually entering a STEM career is not only possible for them but necessary. The students were not the only ones to benefit, however. The event included a program to help teachers understand what it takes to get and keep girls in STEM fields. Here’s some advice we can give to our girls to help make that happen.


Stay Smart, but Don’t Be Afraid to Fail


This might seem like a no-brainer, but one of the most important things we can help our girls realize is that being smart is nothing to be ashamed of. Dr. Carolyn Phillips, assistant computational scientist in the math and computer science division of Argonne, told the girls, “You want to be around smart people because smart people make you smarter.” In her keynote address, she cited studies that state that women are more likely to feel frustrated when they fail than men are. Men are much more likely to subscribe to Thomas Edison’s statement: “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Phillips encouraged the girls to persevere with the hard problems, saying, “You know you’re working on something good if you can’t solve it right way.” Science is all about failing; some of the best inventions and solutions to the most difficult problems have come from experimentation and subsequent failures.

Because of this fear of failure, girls often shy away from the difficult classes like Advanced Placement STEM classes. The Honorable LaDoris Harris, director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity in the U.S. Department of Energy, told the girls, “Take the difficult courses. Leave your options open.” If we, as teachers, can encourage girls to take those difficult classes and support and celebrate their efforts rather than their outcomes, this will go a long way toward encouraging them to stay in those classes.


Give Math a Chance


Phillips also addressed math in her keynote address, telling the girls that “math gets a bad rap” because early math is often a little bit boring. Math in the early years is all about learning the tools, but that’s not what doing math really is. According to Phillips, math is creating with the tools or, even better, creating the tools themselves. That’s the fun part, but students need to learn the tools first in order to get to that fun part. To spark students’ interest in STEM disciplines early on, we must give students practical applications for math problems and encourage them to use the tools to solve practical problems.


STEM Gives You Transferrable Skills


STEM courses aren’t only about science, technology, engineering and math. As teachers, we need to make sure girls know that taking STEM courses in school won’t close them off to other opportunities down the line. STEM classes encourage all students to solve problems, learn things quickly, communicate their solutions effectively and see connections that others might not see. Furthermore, when something fails, it encourages students to be adaptable and persevere. In short, STEM courses open more doors than they close for all students, especially girls.


Diversity Isn’t Important; It’s Necessary


As Harris put it, “It’s not an option for this country to have women interested in STEM. It’s a necessity.” Phillips backed up this idea by saying, “If you don’t look like everyone in the room, you belong there even more.” It is vital that our girls—especially girls of color or girls who might be the first in their family to attend college—have mentors who help them realize this. It only takes one person outside the family to inspire a student toward a career in STEM. And mentors don’t necessarily have to look like those students or share their gender or racial identities (although role models who do look like them can make a world of difference). What’s important is that the encouragement comes from someone the student has a relationship with and who makes an effort to connect her with positive STEM exposures and experiences.

Samsa is a freelance writer and teaches high school English in the south suburbs of Chicago.