Keeping Girls Interested in STEAM in Middle School and Beyond

Liz Alton

Over the past decade, significant strides have been made in introducing science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) curriculum. Yet one group of students has routinely shown a decline in interest and engagement in a STEAM curriculum beginning in middle school and continuing beyond. According to one study, just 20% percent of technology jobs today are held by women. Addressing the gender gap in science and technology begins with having a strong process in place to keep students engaged, beginning in middle school and continuing throughout their studies and careers. If your school is looking for strategies to keep female students engaged in STEAM, here’s a closer look at the latest research and strategies working today.

Related: Top Trends in Educational Makerspace: Bring Hands-on STEM to K-12 Classrooms

Middle School as a Key Inflection Point for STEAM Engagement

Think back to your own days in middle school. It’s likely that all your memories are not positive. This high-pressure social environment can lead to a wide range of challenges. Studies have shown that from an educational point of view, what students are interested in during middle school can shape their future educational performance, college and major selection, and long-term career directions. According to one study, “One significant factor in facilitating students’ career intentions and persistence in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields is targeting their interests and motivation before eighth grade.” For female students in particular, taking deliberate steps to foster deeper engagement can pay off in long-term interest

Addressing Cultural Bias

As Go Science Girls recently noted, many individuals still struggle with cultural messaging that boys are good at STEM disciplines and girls aren’t as good. While major strides have been made in addressing this issue, it remains a critical area of focus in building confidence in helping girls see the possibilities for themselves at succeeding in STEAM disciplines.

Edutopia reports, “Stereotype threat—the mere perception that a group one belongs to is not good at a task—has been linked to lower academic performance, according to researchers. When girls become aware through both subtle and overt cultural messages about male superiority in math, it makes each encounter with math and technology more fraught, triggering self-doubt in even the most studious young girls.” To help create a more level playing field, educators can ensure that they’re representing female STEAM role models, avoid language that implies these issues, and examine what biases they bring to the table themselves.

Highlighting Women Role Models

Another strategy educators are using successfully is introducing students to successful women technology professionals, scientists, and mathematicians. A landmark study published in the journal Educational Studies in Mathematics discovered that when girls were asked to draw a mathematician, they were twice as likely to draw a man as a woman. This finding underscores why representation and woman role models in STEAM are a key part of empowering female participation, especially during critical time periods of identity formation such as middle school.

Whether that’s ensuring textbooks and supplemental resources highlight women role models or inviting speakers into the classrooms, by bringing in female role models to speak about their careers and educational paths and answer questions from students, schools achieve several goals. One is that they help younger female students see role models successfully pursuing these careers. Another is that they introduce evidence to the wide range of possibilities in science, technology, and math careers and encourage them to find an avenue that best fits their unique interest.

Celebrating a Wide Range of STEAM Skills

As one contributor to Forbes noted, “we are taking note that expert teachers from across the country have pointed out that the myth that STEM is only about hard skills is slowly waning and that funders like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are embracing the ‘whole child’ approach to learning, combining physical, mental, social-emotional, and cognitive development with traditional academics.” More broadly, when educators and programs embrace a wider definition of what STEM involves and how to cultivate success, it improves inclusiveness and encourages diverse students to stay engaged in middle school and beyond.

Developing STEAM Opportunities to Help Students Build Friendships

One way schools are fighting back against the decline in interest in STEAM is by creating opportunities that highlight social prestige and social engagement opportunities. For example, setting up STEAM clubs gives students the opportunity to form friendships and socialize with others who share their interest. Over time, these relationships can help students form a strong identity that embraces STEAM and sustain their interest. Other case studies have shown that it’s effective to show how STEAM relates to areas that interest students outside of the classroom, such as the coding and technology behind the latest social network or connecting engineering to an in-demand toy. Taking steps to highlight how STEAM topics are relevant—and how they can be the basis of shared interests and strong friendships—promotes interest and engagement for all students.

Proactively Addressing the STEAM Gender Gap

STEAM education is a priority across curriculums. Educators are working hard to find ways to reach students of all ages, but it becomes increasingly important to prioritize strategies that resonate with girls in middle school and beyond. Whether it’s addressing inherent bias or connecting students to women role models in the field, strategically investing in these areas can help dramatically improve engagement and long-term interest.

Liz Alton is a B2B technology and digital marketing writer and content strategist. She has worked with a variety of brands including Google, Twitter, Adobe, Oracle, and HP, and written for publications including Forbes. She is a regular contributor to Connected, Connection’s official blog.