STEAM is a growing and important facet of education. Linking the arts (including performing arts, visual communications, graphic design, and other digital arts) to the core components of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, STEAM is transforming the ways in which we teach and integrate science into our homes, classrooms, and communities. STEAM (and STEM) careers can include anything from forensic psychologists to medical illustrators to sound engineers.
What still remains, however, is a notable gender gap between those who pursue science and those who do not. Top tier STEM fields (computer science, mathematics, engineering) are still not being filled to the extent they could be by girls and women. This poses a significant problem to girls believing they can achieve and do all the things others can do from an early age, and it also handicaps key decision making in policies and innovations of our society. Women make up half of the world’s population, yet they are not even close to halfway represented in these fields.
As our society increasingly grows dependent upon strategic innovations in science, computers, and engineering, women’s voices are not being seen and heard in these spaces at equal proportions. A notable subset of the population is not equally represented and we must actively work to mitigate this. A look at the facts illuminates this even further.
Fast Facts: The Scope of the Problem
A March 2021 update by the National Girls Collaborative Project reported that “women still remain underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce, with the greatest disparities occurring in engineering and computer science”. By their figures, women constitute 47% of the total workforce but only 29% of the total STEM workforce. They cite that “women STEM professionals are concentrated in different fields than men, with relatively higher shares of women in psychology and social sciences (59%), and life sciences (48%)”. The lowest of these shares occur in computer and mathematical sciences (27%) and engineering (16%).
In other words, women are still underrepresented in STEM in the workforce, and for those who are involved there is a lean towards psychological, social, and life sciences. Computer science, mathematical fields, and engineering are still underrepresented and male-dominated.
Source credit: National Girls Collaborative Project, March 2021 flyer
A separate National Science Foundation longitudinal study of women in science and engineering roles from 1993 – 2010 reiterates these findings. Social scientists/psychologists take the top of the list, with biological/agricultural/environmental life scientists coming in second. On the other hand, computer/mathematical scientists have seen a percentage decline since 2000, and engineers consistently come in at the lowest spot every year.
Source credit: Census.gov
Things are absolutely improving, but there is still a long way to go. A Census.gov study shared that “in 1970, women made up 38% of all U.S. workers and 8% of STEM workers. By 2019, the STEM proportion had increased to 27% and women made up 48% of all workers.” That 19% increase in female STEM workers is absolutely something to celebrate improving over three decades since 1970! Nevertheless, disparities still remain and need our attention.
So what can we – as parents, educators, and community members at large – do to help? Let’s take a look at five clear and science-educator-approved ways we all can rally together to increase the odds for girls in STEAM.
Way to Help #1: Cultivate Real Role Models
When I was teaching science, I liked to open my first class with my students with a fun inquiry prompt. I asked, “What does a scientist look like?” Students drew what they imagined and most – if not all – drew a white male / Albert Einstein-type character. I was surprised by how consistently the stereotype manifested itself – not only within students in the same class but across different classes and grades as well.
I would then take the opportunity to discuss their drawings with them. Why did they all choose to draw a male figure? Does it reflect reality? I then used that as a leveraging point to teach an ongoing enrichment lesson I had developed showcasing different pioneering women in science and technology.
When we’re young, we grow and learn through osmosis. We observe our parents, peers, aunts, uncles, neighborhood peers, etc. While sensory and language processing is occurring in our early years, rational and perceptual reasoning develops in adolescent years. We make deductions about “what we can and cannot do” by observing and learning from what these key people around us have to say (and do) on the matter.
Some of these stereotypes or assumptions are perpetuated in music, media, and movies too. In spy movies it’s often “the nerdy guy” doing computer science. Although this is changing (check out this study linked in a recent SAM Labs newsletter), how often in movies is the “tech guy,” well…not a guy? I grew up watching the show Alias and loving the adorable and ever-inventive Marshall Flinkman as part of that show. I wouldn’t change his loveable nature for the world, but I wonder how much more empowered I might have felt to pursue computer science as an adult if more characters like Marshall were female?
We need to assume gender role models in these fields are not being taken care of elsewhere and, instead, take an active part in teaching them. Some ways we can do this include adding an enrichment series on the topic in lesson planning (for teachers), dinner table conversations and inspirational books (for parents), and pioneering after school clubs on the topic (parents and teachers both). I also like the Work It, Girl book series for inspiration.
Way to Help #2: Embrace Open-ended Experiments
Much of what makes science difficult for students – and intangible – is the fact that much of it cannot be deduced as a “plug and chug” or “grammatical rule” answer. It requires inquiry, postulating, testing, examining errors, sharing with peers and seeking areas to retest.
Projects and tasks that involve hands-on inquiry, hypothesizing, and testing (such as a SAM Labs project) really fill gaps in this cycle. Students need to see, feel, and experience the excitement of what science can be. Those “open-ended areas” are great chances for exploration and postulation! It’s not just about memorizing cellular respiration formulas, mitosis diagrams, and the differences between plant and animal cells.
As an added bonus, applying these techniques benefits not only girls, but all students in science as well.
Way to Help #3: Make it Social
Students need to see that they can collaborate with one another and have a social life while doing STEAM. Math, science, and engineering are so much more about collaboration than people realize. Although it’s changing and improving, girls often feel they may have to “give something up” if they pursue science. There is unfortunately still a stigma around being heavily involved in math and science and being “too much of a nerd”. Students need to see that STEAM is social.
We can do this by:
- Showcasing science in community and shared conversation, such as TED Talks, conferences, and symposiums.
- Highlighting scientists in collaboration with one another, though collaborative documentaries, book reads (e.g. Rosalind Franklin worked alongside Watson and Crick), and scientific papers with multiple authors.
- Teaching students about the nature of scientific publishing journals. Get specific!
- Modeling coding through robotics clubs that facilitate group interaction.
- Posing engineering challenges in fun and collaborative ways.
You could even create a middle school poster contest entirely around the topic of “Science is Social!”
Way to Help #4: Go Interdisciplinary
During my student teaching days, I collaborated with a history teacher to deliver a joint class lesson on Darwin and natural selection. The opportunities to link different subjects to teach STEAM are endless. Often, this can be what excites a student to even want to consider science in the first place. “Oh, I can use my art skills to draw out schematics to support the robotics team? That’s pretty cool.”
Even the positive association one student has for a particular teacher or subject can help. For example, you can link the work of contextual clues in grammar to the concept of supporting evidence in an experiment. What about writing an argumentative essay is akin to establishing a hypothesis and testing it out? (“What did you learn? How could you share that with others? What evidence do you have to support your claim?”) From pair-share activities to full on class discussions, we can find innumerable ways to work in the principles of the Scientific Method.
Way to Help #5: Have Support Systems in Place
When I was pursuing my biology degree in college, I had moments where I was frustrated and wanted to give up. Math and science fatigue in academia is a very real thing. The pressure and the stakes are high, and this pressure is increasingly being pushed to early high school, even 8th grade.
Reflecting back, I wish more systems were already in place for me at that time. I was very vocal in speaking up for myself, but I am sure there were countless others who did not and just left. Girls need to be inspired earlier and earlier to rally for themselves in STEM and know who they can go to for support and inspiration.
Furthermore, girls, women, and female-identifying individuals need to understand that pursuing science does not have to be about going to medical school. Medicine and biomedical sciences are a key and vital part of science, but not the only part. Even in my field of biology there was tension between the students knowing they were pursuing biology to go to medical school and those (like myself) who knew they were doing it to not.
Students sometimes get an idea in their head (a schema) that science = being a doctor, and nothing could be farther from the truth. Girls need to see they could be an IT technician, a marine biologist, a botanist, a chemist, an astrophysicist, an astronaut, a mechanical engineer, or a lighting technician for a theater company and in all of these ways they would be doing science.
Looking Ahead: The Future Can Be Bright
What really excites me as a certified science teacher and woman in science is that many of the solutions I articulated here are embodied by products like SAM Labs. Going interdisciplinary is embodied in SAM Labs’ common core-integrated curriculum and all facts of the STEAM equation are worked and integrated: science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics (Way to Help #4). In addition, the act of designing, testing, and iterating solutions is innate with the products and this perfectly works the art of open-ended experiments (#2).
We can consider the use of SAM Labs as a supportive product to inspire girls in STEAM in other ways too. Through the act of collaborating and working in small groups on the product designs, students are, in fact, being social while doing science (#3). Imagine that! Teachers can use that very thing as a jumping off point to discuss collaboration in science (after all, dissemination / sharing findings is the last component of the scientific method) and/or take SAM Labs time as an opportunity to showcase a pioneer woman in science.
One could make an art of blending different facets of these solutions so they feel seamless, effortless, and whole. The more girls can experience STEAM in this way, the more inspired they will be to continue with it, explore, grow, and try, and that is of great need.
Julie Ann Howlett is an experienced science educator who has served as a public school teacher, private tutor, and EdTech professional. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Biology with a Masters in Teaching and has done work in neuroscience, experimental design, and more. Gender equity in STEM and business, innovations in EdTech, and holistic living are among her favorite writing topics. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.