Engaging Girls in S.T.E.M.

Australian census data shows that only 7.2% of Industrial, Mechanical and Production Engineers are women, with the proportion increasing to 24.8% when Civil and Electrical engineers are included. This significant level of female under representation has led me to have a strong focus on gender engagement and empowering girls in STEM.

I created the Canterbury Primary School Makerspace as a safe environment for making, testing, and fixing where all students are valued for the skills and attributes they bring. 

Many females make strong connections with engineering projects when they empathise with the concept. I design engineering projects with a focus on empathy, including creating bionic arms using Arduino robotics and creating 3D printed homes for our pet hermit crabs. Students coded drones to replicate search and rescue missions and are now beginning to create solutions to decrease waste and increase recycling in the community. As a result, a larger number of girls come into the Makerspace to work on projects and there has been an increase in girls’ outcomes in STEM areas across the school. 

Challenges faced by girls in S.T.E.M.

  • A lack of visibility of what S.T.E.M. opportunities look like and not normalised enough
  • Lack of female leaders and role models in S.T.E.M.
  • Stereotypes
  • Lack of experience with failure
  • Students can’t explain why things work and why they made inventions
  • Boys are applauded for effort, girls are applauded for outcomes
  • Continuity in S.T.E.M. – career breaks

Recommendations to engage girls in S.T.E.M. in Primary School

1. Praise effort, not only achievement. It is important that girls learn that it is ok to fail from a young age. Science and Engineering careers involve risk taking and projects often fail. It is important to build girls resilience as learners from a young age.

2. Group boys and girls together from Prep – 6 and beyond. This way boys see the valuable contributions girls make to STEM challenges and projects and it will draw girls into the space

3. Higher level of communication and enhance visibility around S.T.E.M., particularly visibility of female role-models and leaders. We connect with female high school students through the John Monash Little Scientists, Big Science Program and have previously Skyped with female scientists and engineers to get expert advise on our projects. The ‘Draw a Scientist’ initiative is also worthwhile looking at and doing in your classroom. Made with Code connect people to female STEM mentors and show some incredible stories about females in STEM. Other great initiatives include Sisters in Science (Australian – Melbourne based), SAGE – Science in Australia Gender Equity @SciGenderEquity, Women in STEMM AustraliaTech Girls Movement and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls

4. Call out unconscious bias when you see it. It often starts with parents, eg “I’m not good at maths, go and ask your father”. Watch stereotypes and language as well – don’t let girls diminish their achievements. Encourage both girls and boys to step up and be part of this conversation.

5. Ensure Makerspaces are attractive to girls.  Girl Code Clubs support girls to get involved, I often see girls come to the the door during ‘Coding Monday’ at lunch, see a room full of boys and turn around and walk away.  Empowering girls as leaders in the Makerspace is beneficial in encouraging more girls to get involved.

6. Develop engineering projects with a focus on empathy, for example search and rescue drone missions, bionic arm design etc. (see photos below)