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Attracting More Girls To STEM Fields

Getting kids interested in science, technology, engineering and math can be a challenge for teachers. It can be even more challenging if the students are girls. That’s just one of the many topics that came up during a discussion about tomorrow’s workforce at Texas Tribune’s Symposium on STEM Education on Monday.


Tricia Berry says there’s a clear difference between the way girls and boys respond to robotic competitions.

“So boys get very excited about robotics and get very excited about competition. Girls, on the other hand, steer clear often times from competition, especially competition within the technology space.”

Berry heads up the Women in Engineering Program at the University of Texas at Austin. She attended the daylong event, which was held at the University of Texas at Dallas. She says if you want to attract more girls to the fields of science, technology, engineering and math – otherwise known as STEM – you have to find ways to make it interesting for them. Start at an early age and get rid of the fear factor.

“One of things that the research has found is that when you have an all-girl experience, some of that competition fear goes away,” Berry says. “They don’t feel that external pressure sometimes that you would feel in maybe a school club environment when the boys are in the mix as well.”

She also points to how girls and boys react after taking a test.

“They [girls] will not do so hot on their first test and they’ll say, ‘I’m not cut out to be an engineer,’” Berry says. “Where the guys will not do so well on that first test, but they’ll walk out saying ‘Well the professor sucks or that was a stupid test.’”

Jane Taylor, an educational robotics expert who attended the symposium, has noticed the gender differences, too, and says it bothers her. Two years ago, she hosted a robotics camp in which only two of the 98 students signed up were girls. That’s when she decided to launch an all-girls summer camp called SHEbot, which mixes robotics with fashion.

“What I did was took the math and science from fashion design. You cannot make a garment without measuring. You cannot plan out a design without thinking about math and being strategic about it.”

The girls learned how to program their robots. They figured out how to make them stand up and determined their center of gravity, so they wouldn’t fall forward or backward. Taylor says the middle school age girls had fun with it.

“In the programming part of the camp, we have set moves like twirling and sashaying and making a U-turn and different things you would actually see on a catwalk,” Taylor says.

Nationwide, there are about 26 million STEM jobs, which is 20 percent of all jobs. U.S. Rep. Jeff Leach of Plano says that in the next three to four years, 2 million more STEM jobs will be added.

“So the jobs are going to be there,” Leach says. “They are going to need to be filled. The question is who’s going to fill those jobs?”

Educators at this conference said that could be girls or boys. Leach says 80 percent of kids stay close to home after graduating from high school. One way to help to employ them is by encouraging local industry leaders to get involved.

“We have hundreds, if not thousands, around this area from companies such as Texas Instruments, Exxon, Chevron – these companies small and large who are ready to jump in and get involved, but in other parts of the state they don’t know how to get involved,” Leach says.

At a time when many women make less than men, STEM jobs may help narrow the gap. The U.S. Department of Commerce says women with STEM jobs make 33 percent more than women in other jobs.

You can see more about the STEM symposium here.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.