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Attracting K-12 Students – Especially Girls – into STEM Courses Through Engaging STEM Programs

Explore how STEM programs inspire K-12 students, with a focus on empowering girls, to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math paths.
Attracting K-12 Students – Especially Girls – into STEM Courses Through Engaging STEM Programs

Attracting K-12 Students – Especially Girls – into STEM Courses Through Engaging STEM Programs

It’s well known that there are far more men than women in STEM careers, with women only making up about a quarter of the STEM workforce. We could write a whole series of posts about women in STEM fields, about the fact that only 23% of architects are women, or about challenges that women engineers face to get taken seriously.

But that’s not the point for today. Today, we want to focus on a more elementary level of the same challenge. We want to focus on attracting students in general, and girls in particular into STEM courses –  in the context of K12 education. 

What is STEM education anyways?

STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. It’s more than just a grouping of related subjects, though. It’s a framework that includes a lot of hands-on learning; experiences instead of just a textbook. A typical STEM course – if there is such a thing – will draw a vast array of resources together, to give students opportunities that can be translated into real life. Students will learn both teamwork and independent thinking; they’ll learn to critically analyze facts and interpret data; they’ll hone problem-solving skills and develop their creativity. 

A core part of STEM education is the belief that failure is a normal part of the process. To foster critical thinking skills, students are encouraged to try – fail – analyze – iterate – try again – and yes, fail again. It’s ok, it’s allowed. It can be a completely new style of learning for students who have been used to textbooks, flashcards, memorization, and standardized tests.

Perceptions of STEM education

But there are perceptions related to STEM education that can dissuade students from jumping into taking STEM subjects at school. Keep in mind that these are young children who are still at the entry of their education. 

For one student, “science” may only relate, in their mind, to a negative experience struggling to understand concepts of electricity, as explained by a single teacher, last semester. Some students think it’s all about math, and “I’m not good at math.” Technology? The funny thing is that although students live and breathe technology – they don’t necessarily know it as such, so the word is at best a blank. And if you ask a grade 5 student what does an engineer do, they may well reply “He makes engines,” or “He drives a train.” Note that: “he.”

Communication & fun: the first hurdle to attracting students, and specially girls, into STEM

Like so many other aspects of life, communication is key, and you must keep it fun. This doesn’t have to be complicated. For younger students, this means that where you have some basic STEM sets – think Lego, K’Nex, Lincoln Logs or even plain old wooden blocks – you also have posters that show kids playing with those toys, and a slogan “STEM is fun.” 

When students are old enough to start enjoying 3D printing, projects can be incorporated into the broader curriculum. How old is old enough for 3D printing? Younger than you probably think. One of our clients introduces 3D printing in Grade 3, and students make a ‘Secret Santa’ style project where a design they customize and 3d print interlocks with another student’s. 

And again, communication is so important. A young girl who loves crafting with popsicle sticks and hot glue is just one mentor away from exploring and creating with a 3D printer. With a little nudge a student who has built a terrarium just for fun might go deeper into biology and ecology. In middle school, competitions like building a functional mousetrap car or a weight-bearing bridge foster teamwork and creativity in the best way imaginable. And chess? It is literally a game. Fun, logic, and solving complex problems. Unless prompted, students may not realize that STEM education can be that fun, and they may not realize that what they’re enjoying is considered STEM education.

What are STEM career opportunities? Beyond engineering.

Another reason some students may not dive enthusiastically into STEM courses is the perception that STEM careers are limited to engineering and biochemistry. And while we certainly approve of engineers and biochemists, there is a lot more to it than that.

STEM covers a vast array of workers and careers. Out of more than 150 million workers, the US Bureau of Labor considers more than 10 million to be in STEM fields. We need to communicate to all students, and especially girls, what a broad scope there is in STEM fields.

We need people who can do web design. People who can run a team developing vaccines. We need knowledgeable nurses who care about people, and have the knowledge and skills to make a difference. We need prosthetists, and accountants, and people who understand water and air quality problems. 

We need people committed to  taking the current reality in any situation and making things work better. People who still have the curiosity they had when they were in Grade 8, when they wanted to explore and create, and weren’t afraid to try, fail, and try again.

Rene-Oscar Ariko
VP of Global Sales

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