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Girls and STEM at The Tech

  • by Guest Blogger on July 12, 2013
    By Laura Bruursema

    During my time working with The Tech, I’ve been talking with a lot of elementary and middle school aged girls. They’ve shared stories with me about their diverse interests in art, sports, fashion, science and math. They love to make things: woodworking projects, graffiti art, and model sustainable solar cars. They like projects where they can help others. Despite their many passions, if current trends persist, by college most of these girls will no longer be pursuing these interests through STEM majors (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) or subsequently, in their careers (Hill et al, 2010). 
    This is troubling. Even though girls take as many math and science classes as boys through high school, by college women make up only 20% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering, computer science and physics (Hill et al, 2010). The rate of STEM occupations are projected to grow faster than the average rate, and attracting women to STEM fields is critical for remaining competitive in the global market. More women will help drive creativity, innovation, and growth, and a more diverse workforce means solutions are more likely to better represent a more diverse spectrum of users, including addressing design needs unique to women (Margolis & Fisher, 2002). 
    So, what happens between middle school and college? While there isn’t a significant difference in ability, what does change for many girls is interest and confidence. Despite excelling in STEM courses, around middle school some girls aren’t sure where they fit in with science and technology fields. They have many interests, and some feel alienated from tech culture (Margolis & Fisher, 2002). Part of the alienation girls can feel is influenced by perceptions that STEM occupations are solitary, lonely, and not aligned with goals of achieving social good. Even though STEM careers are actually critical for creating solutions to help people, many perceive them to be antisocial - or worse (Diekman et al., 2010).
    There is not any one reason to explain the systemic gender disparities. Early experience,  biological factors, and cultural context can all impact whether women pursue STEM fields (Halpern et al., 2007). But focusing on early experience and cultural factors could help nudge more girls and women toward STEM. Cultivating a sense of agency and identity as a STEM learner is critical for persistence in STEM learning and careers.   
    Designing explicitly for girls is a thorny topic. Many toy and educational designers have attempted to address the STEM gender divide with mixed success. Lego’s attempt to redesign for girls, Lego Friends, resulted in controversy and accusations of perpetuating stereotypes. There’s also the pink problem. Remember this great rant about the sad state of  toys marketed to girls? The less successful designers are rebranding and repackaging the same products, but not changing fundamentally how the products are designed. I would argue that the more successful toys better integrate girls’ interests in creative design and collaborative play with their interests with science or technology. Some of the more successful STEM-oriented toys that are appealing for girls include Roominate, a toy that allows girls to work alone or with others to build a custom model house and outfit it with electronic components and littleBits, an introductory electronics kit designed for creative, playful prototyping. 
    As a designer of educational technology, I’m curious: how might we design learning experiences and products to leverage girls’ interests and work styles to promote a sense of belonging and agency in STEM fields? In order to design better, informed designers should learn more about what girls like to do, what they want, and how they like to work. After brief interviews with over a dozen middle school girls and observing and talking with a number of girls and parents on The Tech museum floor, a few themes emerged. Girls are interested in helping people to promote social good, many like exercising their creativity by pursuing art projects or making things individually and collaboratively, and many rely on a network of family members to support their project work. 
    Social Good
    Many women have multiple interests, and report wanting to do work that is helpful for society (Margolis & Fisher, 2002). A number of girls I spoke to reported wanting to help others and change the world. For instance, one San Jose 5th grader told me she wants to be a doctor because she imagines herself "helping people." Another would like to design a robot that “helps you clean up the house and wash dishes.” A San Jose eighth grader told me a favorite project was an art project she worked on with a friend for a sick teacher. For many of the girls I encountered, their career aspirations were related to helping professions, and a desire to help also influenced their project ideas.  
    Making & Creativity
    Not only are many girls interested in promoting social good, but girls tend to prefer play experiences where they can design and create, rather than destroy (Margolis & Fisher, 2002). In my conversations on the museum floor, girls consistently self-identified as creative and list art-making among some of their favorite activities. One 6th grader from Ft. Bragg imagined a collaborative technology-rich art installation for The Tech as “a big exhibit where you can draw a person in different colors, and everyone else’s drawings are there. And, you can use parts of their drawing in yours to make a new one and then share it with everyone on the wall.” 
    An eighth grader told me she loved to make “anything original or cool” in her free time, and many girls I spoke with reported involvement in a variety of self-directed projects. A group of Sacramento 6th grade girls said they liked to make furniture and wished they could create a solar energy powered panel in their bedrooms. Many of these self-directed projects have a craft component, like homemade paper valentines, or a social component, like making doll furniture for family members. 
    Collaboration & Family 
    Not only did girls’ interests come up in my observations and interviews, but I also learned how the girls who actually did STEM projects were supported. A San Jose 8th grader described her favorite projects as collaborations with friends. A San Jose fifth grader described a recent project and the roles of her family members:  her grandfather took her to the store to buy supplies for a woodworking project and her father helped her use the tools safely. Many girls reported liking to work collaboratively and being encouraged to pursue digital and technology projects with their dads or friends. Strong “learning ecologies” and learning communities play a critical role in whether or not girls persist in building technological literacy, and family members (both STEM professionals and novices) are critical in supporting and sustaining these activities (Barron, 2004). 
    Girls & STEM Design Suggestions
    Building on things girls already like to do, and designing for collaboration, for social good, and for creativity and aesthetic design, could potentially help reframe how STEM learning is perceived. From my observations and a review of relevant research, I derived a few design guidelines that might help designers engage more girls:
    - Create maker activities that incorporate art, creativity, and technology (like the wearable tech crafting stations during Open Make @ The Tech: Wearable Tech). See some inspiring examples on the Instructables website
    - Design more explicitly collaborative science and technology experiences where parents and children can create together and help one another learn together. 
    - Connect to the big picture. Highlight how science and technology can be used to improve lives and promote social good when designing STEM education.
    We know there is no one reason that girls choose not to pursue STEM, but creating engaging experiences that could foster a sense of belonging and agency as a STEM learner could help to spark passion and encourage persistence. 
    I’m doing a lot of thinking about designing for collaboration and creativity to inspire more girls to pursue and persist in STEM learning for my masters project for Stanford University's Learning, Design & Technology program. Stay tuned to learn more about my project. We’ll be demoing at the LDT Expo on August 2nd at Stanford University. 
    Barron, B. (2004). Learning Ecologies for Technological Fluency: Gender and Experience Differences. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 31 (1), 1- 36.
    Diekman, A. B., E. R. Brown, A. M. Johnston, E. K. Clark (2010), Seeking Congruity Between Goals and Roles: A New Look at Why Women Opt Out of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Careers, Psych. Sci., 21(8): 1051-1057.
    Hill, C., Corbett, C., & St. Rose, A.. (2010). Why So Few? Women In Science, Technology, Engineering, And Mathematics. Washington, D.C.: AAUW.
    Margolis, J. and Fisher, A. (2002). Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
    Halpern, D. F., Benbow, C., Geary, D., Gur, D., Hyde, J. & Gernsbacher, M.A., (2007). The science of sex-differences in science and mathematics. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 8, 1-52.

    Laura Bruursema was the Learning & Exhibits Intern. She's currently a Master's student at the Stanford Graduate School of Education in the Learning, Design, & Technology program.