Research to Practice, Practice to Research
How to Engage Girls in STEM
By Alicia Santiago, Kristin Pederson, and Rita Karl
Middle school is a critical time for fostering girls’ interest in science, as it is during these years that girls begin to identify with their strengths and weaknesses and start to decide what kind of person to be (Allen and Eisenhart 2017; Carlone, Johnson, and Scott 2015). As such, these are important years in which to engage and inspire girls around science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM. However, research demonstrates that middle school is also when girls begin to lose interest and self-efficacy around STEM studies and career paths, and form anti-STEM biases. Unfortunately, girls often carry these negative opinions into high school, at which time they “close the door” on STEM learning and career opportunities.
The good news is that out-of-school time STEM programs for middle school–age girls can and do help girls feel empowered and engaged around STEM exploration. One such program is SciGirls, the Emmy Award–winning PBS national project produced by Twin Cities PBS and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The SciGirls program includes a television series, digital resources, educator professional development, and community outreach for girls and families. All project components work together to help girls—particularly girls of color and underserved learners—to connect STEM to their interests, passions, and lives.
All SciGirls media and educational resources are based on the SciGirls Strategies, a set of research-based approaches proven to improve and retain girls’ interest and self-efficacy around STEM, and foster interest in STEM studies and careers. The strategies are used by informal and formal educators at 200+ SciGirls partner organizations, including museums, community organizations, afterschool programs, and schools. The SciGirls Strategies were updated in 2019 through an NSF-funded literature review that focused on both seminal and new research performed between 2013 and 2018 on the topic of gender and STEM education. Although still firmly focused on gender equity, the review also addressed intersectionality, cultural responsiveness, and inclusive learning environments. The six SciGirls Strategies are:
The strategies inform all SciGirls media, educator training, and aligned outreach programs, and are proven to increase middle school girls’ interest in and attitudes toward STEM, and to improve educators’ ability to engage girls in STEM (Flagg 2010; Flagg 2012; Flagg 2016; Knight-Williams 2008; Knight-Williams 2014; Knight-Williams 2016). So, how can educators use these strategies effectively to attract and retain their learners’ interest, curiosity, and motivation around STEM?
An overarching framework underlies the SciGirls Strategies and provides guidance to educators who are seeking to translate the strategies into pedagogical approaches tailored to meet the needs of their learners. Providing an inclusive learning environment that looks and feels inviting and supportive and allows youth to feel that they belong—and using culturally responsive practices that empower youth by respecting and incorporating their interests, backgrounds, and experiences in the learning process—are key in developing strong STEM identities and in creating a more positive and equitable learning experience for all girls (Adams, Gupta, and Cotumaccio 2014; Cakir et al. 2017; Civil 2016; Gay 2000; Hubert 2014; Ladson-Billings 2008; Riedinger and Taylor 2016; Sammet and Kekelis 2016; Verdin, Godwin, and Capobianco 2016).
The framework focuses on two powerful elements:
Inclusive learning spaces and CRP are critical in helping girls develop strong STEM identities in which they see themselves and are recognized by others as someone who uses, does, and understands STEM. Developing a strong STEM identity is especially critical for girls, as it plays a greater role in shaping their future participation in STEM. Gender roles and stereotypes are culture-specific, and highlighting this intersectionality is imperative to creating STEM opportunities for all girls. Gender-equitable strategies and CRP are inextricably linked: CRP enhances gender equity.
Ultimately, the SciGirls Strategies call on educators to seek to know their learners and celebrate the diverse “ways of being” that create the richest educational environments. To learn more about the SciGirls Strategies and discover tips on how to implement them, visit the SciGirls CONNECT website.
Alicia Santiago (email@example.com) is cultural diversity consultant for Twin Cities Public Television. Kristin Pederson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior director, STEM project development and communications, at Twin Cities Public Television in St. Paul, Minnesota. Rita Karl (email@example.com) is managing director of STEM media and education and executive producer of SciGirls at Twin Cities Public Television in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Adams, J.D., P. Gupta, A. Cotumaccio. 2014. Long-term participants: A museum program enhances girls’ STEM interest, motivation, and persistence. Afterschool Matters 20: 13–20.
Allen, C.D., and M. Eisenhart. 2017. Fighting for desired versions of a future self: How young women negotiated STEM-related identities in the discursive landscape of educational opportunity. Journal of the Learning Sciences 26 (3) 407–36.
Çakır, N.A., A. Gass, A. Foster, and F.J. Lee. 2017. Development of a game-design workshop to promote young girls’ interest towards computing through identity exploration. Computers and Education 108: 115–30.
Carlone, H.B., A. Johnson, and C.M. Scott. 2015. Agency amidst formidable structures: How girls perform gender in science class. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 52 (4): 474–88.
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Flagg, B.N. 2010. Summative evaluation of SciGirls television series season one. Bellport, NY: Multimedia Research. www.informalscience.org/sites/default/files/SG_SummativeEval_2010.pdf.
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Flagg, B.N. 2016. Contribution of multimedia to girls’ experience of citizen science. Citizen Science: Theory and Practice 1 (2). https://theoryandpractice.citizenscienceassociation.org/articles/10.5334/cstp.51.
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