It's easy to get lost in discussions about how to attract more women to fields in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM, or STEAM when it also incorporates the arts). But the first element in attracting women to these fields is getting them enthusiastic about the subject early on in life. A young person who gets excited about doing STEM or STEAM is apt to turn that interest into a career. A lot of organizations large and small invest energy in holding events for students. In this case, the aim is to inspire girls about everything from programming to chemistry, with the expectation that some of them will go on to incorporate STEM as a profession.
This type of event is crucial, but what makes such an event a success? To find out, I asked experts this question, and hoo boy did I get a lot of responses! (I didn't always get permission to use their full names, though, as you'll see as you read through this story.) I learned so much, in fact, that I realized I had to scale back the discussion to different types of events, or at least several facets of an outreach program. Some events aim to inspire while others set expectations about STEM careers (such as the range of jobs and business skills to develop). Yet other events prepare girls to cope with the workforce. Some events—and for simplicity's sake, I limit this to K-12—encompass all of these goals.
Herein, however, I start with inspiration. If the girls aren't interested, the rest doesn't matter. One theoretical astrophysicist told me for this story that, for younger girls, "getting them excited about science and engineering and showing them the career options in STEM is usually as specific as it needs to be."
Want Inspiration? Ask Girls What They Want
Before you plan an agenda for your girls-in-tech event, ask your young audience what appeals to them.
"Find out what activities they enjoy by asking them," said Dr. Karen Panetta, Dean for Graduate Education at Tufts University. Be specific. "If you receive responses saying, 'I like math and science,' you need to ask the question again," she said. Panetta is also an IEEE Fellow and founder of an Engineering Outreach Program called Nerd Girls. She's also received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring from President Obama for her outreach work. The award "recognizes the crucial role that mentoring plays in the academic and personal development of students studying science and engineering" according to the White House.
"Don't stuff the math and science down their throats," Panetta said. "Rather, approach it by connecting their passions to math and science." Before any event, Panetta or the Nerd Girl team provides girls with a wide-ranging checklist of possible activities, such as gardening, music, playing dress up, sports, or writing.
If the girls are already comfortable with the things they love, then they are more receptive to using those passions to explore math and science, according to Panetta. "Every group is different, and every age group is different," she said. "Each group may like doing different things, even if the different groups are of the same age. Other factors, such as socio-economic status, can shape their passions. Inner city girls may like hip-hop dancing and suburban girls may like shopping."
It's way too easy for organizers to create an event that just talks at the girls. The event should be a place to share their voices and ideas. "'Empowerment' is a word that comes up often in events for girls, but organizers often forget to empower girls by engaging them in the event planning process," said Michelle C. Flatt, Vice President of Programs at AnitaB.org. Event organizers always should involve at least two girls in the planning, she said.
Sometimes the primary motivation is inclusion. "The most important thing for girls to hear is to be asked to participate," said Debi Pfitzenmaier, founder and Executive Director of Youth Code Jam, a Texas-based nonprofit. "When I talk to the girls we work with, more often than not, they got into computer science because they were asked by a teacher, a friend, a parent to take a camp, register for a class, attend an event. And they got hooked."
Youth Code Jam started a girls club called She Code Connect in response to girls telling Pfitzenmaier "that they were the only girl in their computer science class or the only girl on their computer science competition team, and how they wished they had a 'tribe' of like-minded girls to share these experiences with."
Make the event accessible, in all the possible definitions. And host the event on a school day to ensure high turnout, advised Tara Spalding, President of Hen House Ventures (in photo at left). Spalding has volunteered at the Women Tech Council (WTC)–sponsored SheTech, an event to inspire high school girls throughout Utah to pursue STEM careers. Spalding said that 2,000 high school girls attended SheTech 2019 on April 9, 2019 at Mountain America Expo Center in Murray, Utah. (The main photo at the top of this story shows Spalding and some of the girls at SheTech 2019.)
Include Hands-On Activities
Your event absolutely needs hands-on activities. But which ones? At many career events, students are expected to just sit and listen to someone talk. That's boring.
As one woman scientist told me, "My biggest annoyance at all the 'women and girls in engineering' type things I went to throughout school was that we never did any engineering. Just a bunch of 'You can totally do this!' You know what's the best at creating confidence? Creating experiences that you can look back at and say, 'Hey, I did this.'"
You need an interesting demonstration, or, better, to do something hands-on or that involves movement.
"Make it very hands-on and participatory," said Spalding. "The first part of SheTech is like an interactive booth style where the colleges and companies sponsor space, then they host interactive games, puzzles, or demos in which girls can selectively engage if they find it interesting."
But "hands on" raises questions about suitable activities, and not just in regard to age-relevant projects.
"Too many outreach programs try to do a one-size-fits all activity," said Panetta. "For instance, robot challenges are quite prevalent. Some kids love it and for others it simply doesn't have any appeal."
And for sure, don't make it pink! "These activities do not have to have an explicit step to use math or science, but they have to be gender neutral," said Panetta. "For instance, if you say you are going to have the students design high-heel shoes as their activity, you can be sure parents of boys or the boys themselves may push back. However, if you say that the activity is designing sneakers, all kids wear sneakers." But don't use male dominated activities either, such as a currently-popular exercise in smashing concrete to determine strength of materials. "Boys may love destroying and smashing things. Girls may not."
Instead, look for creativity and innovation. Among Panetta's favorite activities is from the tryengineering.org website. Students create a package to ship a potato chip, wherein the chip has to be both edible and intact when received. "Students play soccer/volleyball with the final packages and then open them to see whose chip 'survived,'" she explained.
"Make the material relatable to the students," urged Leah McGowen-Hare, Vice President of Trailhead Evangelism at Salesforce. "Going into a class of middle schoolers and teaching technology in the context of 'subscription-based business models in cloud computing' will likely not draw a great deal of engagement. But if you teach them how to build an app to help sell lemonade (check out our Build a Lemonade Stand App Trailhead module), you will connect on their level and help them understand the actual value of what they are learning."
Teach Them to Code
STEM experts outside IT fields recommended teaching girls programming and how to code because it demonstrates practical applications. One woman I spoke to, Jessica, remembered her first moment of inspiration when she wrote a terminal-based game. "Then you can show how that can become web-based with a couple of extra layers," she explains. "Once I understood the structure, it made me more excited about all the things I could make."
The result is—or can be—that girls learn the joy of doing science while they also gain useful business skills. For example, working in teams helps girls solve bigger and real problems by working together using their imagination and science- and technology-related inspiration. With mentorship from someone like Spalding, she said, the girls come up with a solution and then pitch it to the adults in a competition-like format.
At SheTech in April 2019, the girls were presented with a challenge to build a technology solution to help people in a natural disaster (see pic above). "This past year, the challenge was disaster recovery such as fire or flood," Spalding said. "And the year before was resolving a pollution problem due to a high influx of visitors into Utah's mountains."
"Don't just focus on the what. Encourage students to explain why and how they arrived at a solution," said McGowen-Hare. "This will give them an opportunity to explain the solutions from their perspective instead of telling them what they should see."
Go Beyond Inspiration
Naturally, getting more girls to major in computer science or other STEM or STEAM fields usually requires more than thrilling them with programming projects or biology experiments. Larger-scale events often offer opportunities for girls to meet STEM mentors, interact with a role model, and learn the broad range of career options available. But we need to establish a foundation for success, beginning with the girls running home saying, "I had so much fun today!" So let's start there.