Creating Opportunities to Elevate Girls in STEM

Dec 13, 2016 By Shelley Henderson, Diversity & Inclusion Manager at FIRST




Girls and STEM

The following article originally appeared on

There is a long list of initiatives to grow students’ interest and proficiency in science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM) fields, which is good news for all kids. But in terms of recruitment, confidence building, and the availability of relevant role models, there is still a gap when it comes to girls. Part of this mission of FIRST is to help remedy this gap. But organizations like FIRST can’t do it without you. As teachers, you play a crucial role, and through your power to encourage girls’ interest in STEM, you can also positively impact their perceived self-worth and feelings of confidence and mastery.

Here are steps you can take to stimulate girls’ curiosity and fascination for STEM.

Create opportunities: Shelley Correll, professor of sociology at Stanford, said, “Boys do not pursue mathematical activities at a higher rate than girls do because they are better at math. They do so, at least partially, because they think they are better.” Give female students an opportunity to demonstrate their value, make contributions and conceptualize success. Robotics programs like FIRST, whether during school hours or after school, feature open-ended problems, provide learning outcomes and rubrics, promote a team approach and encourage problem-solving and role-modeling.

Recognize intersectionality: The population of “girls and young women” is broad. There’s as much in-group variation here as there is between genders. It can be difficult not to stereotype, and recommending strategies that work for all females can be tricky. Acknowledge the difference between “underrepresented” and “underserved” students, which I define as:

  • Underrepresented: Racial and ethnic groups that are historically less represented in STEM fields (e.g., Hispanics, Latinos, African-Americans, American Indians, etc.)
  • Underserved: Populations lacking access to specific STEM fields, who are sometimes at a disadvantage and may require accommodations. A feeling of marginalization is common. Examples include girls and young women, the disabled, economically disadvantaged youth, first-generation college students, LGBTQ+ students, etc.

Not all students of color are underserved, so don’t make presumptions about why a student isn’t gravitating toward STEM. Recognize that girls are not struggling because they are girls. However, some girls may be underrepresented and experience “double jeopardy” in terms of being less likely to engage or persist in STEM because they fall into multiple underserved categories. They may need extra support or accommodations to engage in STEM activities.

Don’t separate students as a default measure: Fostering all-girls experiences can create environments where girls feel comfortable exploring STEM roles. For this reason, your natural inclination might be to always separate the girls from the boys, but this can also deprive them of many opportunities, including the chance to advocate for themselves and work with others. Encourage female students to recognize their self-worth, feel comfortable learning along with the boys (in everything from coding to robotics), and advocate their ideas to their peers. At the same time, this provides you with an opportunity to re-teach gender norms and reinforce that girls belong and can succeed in STEM fields.

Employ growth mind-set – with caution: Growth mind-set, the idea that your qualities and abilities can be developed, is a valuable tool, but recognize that it isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

  • Pros: Teaching growth mind-set strategies can increase completion and retention rates, especially when taught to underserved and underrepresented students who have a fixed mind-set about college (many assume they won’t be going). It is important for you to recognize whether or not your students possess growth mind-sets.
  • Cons: Students rarely possess exclusively fixed or growth mind-sets – they tend to fall somewhere in between or respond differently based on certain abilities or circumstances. Also, this strategy doesn’t necessarily focus on fixing the conditions and systems that kids face (and even a child with growth mind-set faces obstacles beyond her individual control).

There is much progress to be made when it comes to education and STEM equity – we have a ways to go to close STEM gender gaps, but we cannot leave girls and young women without the resources that level the playing field. As educators, it’s our responsibility to provide meaningful, concrete opportunities for girls to prove themselves not only in the classroom, but to themselves.

Learn more about how FIRST fosters a culture of diversity and inclusion to benefit all students.


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