Engaging girls in STEM programs

Tips for volunteers, parents and youth development professionals on engaging female youth in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs.

Eaton County 4-H girls participating in the 2014 regional 4-H Robotics Challenge. Photo by Jamie Wilson.
Eaton County 4-H girls participating in the 2014 regional 4-H Robotics Challenge. Photo by Jamie Wilson.

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers are growing quickly. At least 15 out of the 20 fastest growing occupations involve STEM skills, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For women who decide to pursue a career in STEM, the gender pay gap is the smallest in STEM fields and women tend to earn about 33 percent more in STEM fields than in non-STEM fields. Yet the National Science Board reports that women continue to be underrepresented in STEM, making up just 29 percent of the workforce (and only 15 percent in engineering fields).

A study conducted by Girl Scouts USA indicates that the majority of girls have an interest in STEM, but very few decide to pursue a STEM field as their first choice of a career. STEM fields have been traditionally male dominated fields and certain stereotypes regarding gender roles  still persist and may discourage girls from pursuing STEM as a career.

Volunteers and youth development professionals who engage youth with STEM programs should make sure their programs are inclusive. Here are some tips for volunteers and youth development professionals who facilitate STEM programs to build support for girls in the program:

  • Highlight positive female role models. Invite females who are engaged in STEM to your program to interact with participants. It is important to provide opportunities to learn from positive female role models, beyond teachers and program facilitators. Including those who reflect the girls’ communities will make the greatest impact. Providing a more one-on-one interaction (such as small networking, lunches, and special events) is especially important for older teens.
  • Include real world applications and examples with the programming. How could the youth use the knowledge gained in your program at home? Making connections from the activity to opportunities to help the community and make a difference are important (for example, activities that teach engineering concepts that could be applied to making prosthetics).
  • Incorporate activities that promote “tinkering” and exploration. Allow youth to ask questions and explore the answers to their questions. Make sure you have time and supplies for youth to be able to be creative and include types of art, reading, or writing into the activities.
  • Encourage teamwork and collaboration. When working in teams, a team comprised of at least half or more girls will engage girls in the activity more than teams in which girls are the minority.
  • Impart the message that science is for everyone. Assumptions about what a scientist is and looks like still exist in today’s society. Make sure to communicate, both verbally and nonverbally, that science is for everyone in your programs.

Did you know girls who participate in 4-H programs are two to three times more likely to take part in science programs compared to girls in other out-of-school time activities? Michigan State University Extension 4-H Youth Development has many 4-H science programming areas for youth to explore.

4-H STEM programming seeks to increase science literacy, introducing youth to the experiential learning process that helps them to build problem solving, critical thinking, and decision making skills. Youth who participate in 4-H STEM programs are better equipped with critical life skills necessary for future success.

For more information about 4-H learning opportunities and other 4-H programs, contact your local MSU Extension office.

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