Everywhere you look these days (and especially if you work in education) people are talking about STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. STEM careers, STEM job creation, STEM college majors… And with good reason. Jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math tend to be in high demand and provide lucrative compensation. They have also tended to be male-dominated. Many people argue that the gender-wage gap is at least partly a result of the under-representation of women in these fields.
If we going to close this gap, part of the solution will be attracting more girls and women to these careers. But how? One major tactic is a take on the adage “If you can see it, you can be it.” Dr. Mae Jemison, former NASA astronaut and the first African American woman in space once wrote that she was inspired to apply to NASA by seeing actress Nichelle Nichols’ portrayal of Lt. Uhura on Star Trek. These days, girls are lucky that they don’t have to limit their sources of inspiration to fictional characters. There are already many smart and successful women working in these fields who can inspire others to follow in their footsteps.
Here are 5 cool ways women are working to get girls and young women excited about STEM:
Women@NASA – Formed in conjunction with the creation of the White House Council on Women and Girls, this program’s website contains essays, bios, and videos of women working in various divisions at NASA. They tell stories of how they were inspired to work in their fields (most of which are science-related), what obstacles they faced, and thank the people who mentored their careers. They are single mothers, former political refugees, women who left other careers after discovering their passion for science later in life, PhDs who moonlight as musicians, athletes, and more. Not all of these women attended elite universities. NASA’s outreach now includes recruiting male and female employees who started their education at community college STEM programs (as one of the scientists on the Mars Rover team did). Women@NASA is a great tool for skewering the perception of what a “typical scientist” looks like and it’s worth sharing with any child who shows an interest in science or the space program.
Aspire 2 Inspire and NASA GIrls/NASA Boys – These two related programs from NASA aim to extend the reach of the Women@NASA program into communities and homes. First, Aspire 2 Inspire (A2I) created a series of short films about the most innovative work being done in STEM fields at NASA and elsewhere to give students an idea of what these careers are like. Secondly, A2I provides age-appropriate materials to schools, museums, and other local groups so they can recruit science-loving kids to work on projects together, building their skills. NASA Girls/NASA Boys pairs middle school students of both genders with NASA employees for a five-week mentoring program conducted via Google Chat or Skype. (Admit it, grownups, you wish you could apply. Sorry, grades 5 through 8 only.)
Sally Ride Science – Founded by the late Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, Sally Ride Science offers a variety of educational programs designed to engage middle school girls. They run one-day science festivals in different cities each year, annual summer science camps for girls, and provide classroom materials on science-related topics such as climate change and space exploration.
Danica McKellar’s Math Books for Girls – Readers over a certain age may remember Danica McKellar for her role as Winnie Cooper on “The Wonder Years.” While navigating that tricky transition from child actor to adulthood, McKellar graduated summa cum laude from UCLA with a degree in mathematics. She then set about finding a way to get more girls interested in this field to counter what she calls “damaging social messages that tell young girls science and math aren’t for them.” The result was a best-selling series of books targeted at middle school and high school girls: Math Doesn’t Suck, Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who’s Boss, Hot X: Algebra Exposed, and Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape.
I have to admit that from reading the titles alone, I was worried that McKellar was trading in the same gender stereotypes she was aiming to dispel. I really didn’t think much of these books…until I showed them to my middle school-aged daughter and her friend one day in a bookstore. I had a hard time getting them to look at anything else once they started reading those books. They are both fairly good at math already but they absolutely loved the format and the language. Math books that girls can’t put down? OK, you have my attention. Both said they liked that the books didn’t talk about math as something they were supposed to hate. That comment in particular made me rethink both my preconception of the books and the way that I personally talk about math around my daughter.
Girl Scouts – The Girl Scouts aren’t about to be left out of any conversation about expanding opportunities for girls. Brownies and juniors now can work towards such STEM-related badges as Naturalist, Digital Art, Science and Technology, and Innovation. In addition, they’ve partnered with the National Science Foundation and several U.S. technology companies to provide mentoring and financial sponsorship of Girl Scout teams in local and national science, engineering, and robotics competitions.
Know about a cool way to get all kids interested in STEM? Tell us in the comments here or on our Facebook page.