Mae Jameson, the first African American woman in space, referred to protecting imagination and interest and making life into one that you would be comfortable and happy with. When it comes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), many women across America lose interest and deviate from their dreams of a secure life within a STEM-related career. This decision might be based on several factors such as their stereotypical views about STEM and negative thoughts about their abilities. As a result of decreased interest, women are vastly underrepresented in STEM-related fields, and this issue has been a growing concern across our nation. In 2019, the United States Census Bureau indicated that women represent close to half of the workforce, yet only 27% are employed in STEM. For the women that do select STEM-related careers, numerous factors influence their decision. One important factor is their participation in positive early STEM experiences during their preschool and elementary years.
Early encouragement in STEM
Proverbs 22:6 summons us to “Train children in the right way.” This verse is very meaningful to parents, teachers and mentors. They recognize the value in training children and observing subsequent growth as they seek God’s will for their lives. Likewise from a career perspective, it is especially important for young girls to be mentored and encouraged early in life to see themselves as fearfully and wonderfully made with the capability of success and triumph in any career path of His leading. For girls that enjoy STEM activities, with proper encouragement and support from family members, friends and mentors, they will continue to pursue their aspirations in STEM recognizing that they can make valuable contributions. Support from mentors can include discussions that break down barriers related to the types and abilities of people that enter STEM related fields. Mentors can also encourage girls to participate in STEM activities after school.
Early informal STEM experiences
Many students engage in informal STEM experiences outside of a school setting. These activities may range from after-school programs involving STEM topics such as robotics, computer programming and engineering essentials to summer-long programs on similar STEM topics sponsored by specific organizations. Many of these programs are geared specially for just girls. Another equally important opportunity that girls are presented with is the chance to participate in STEM activities with their families. These activities may involve visiting STEM spaces such as museums, parks and nature centers. On the other hand, it could include activities at home. For example, research shows that many girls choose to cook with their family members. During this time parents could point out STEM connections such as measurement of ingredients and chemical and physical changes in food preparation.
Early formal STEM experiences
Formal STEM experiences begin in the classroom. However, engaging some girls in this STEM setting can be difficult especially if they have fears about their success. This is where Christian teachers can make their greatest impact on girls in STEM since they have a distinct responsibility to show integrity in their teaching (Titus 2:7-8). Instead of displaying biases in their instruction or intentionally diminishing the capabilities of students, they should encourage all students, especially girls in STEM related subjects, recognizing that their support is critical to student success.
When students participate in a hands-on, inquiry-based learning approach in STEM, they become more interested and enthusiastic about the content. For example, students’ curiosity soar when they are invited to observe the shocking metamorphosis from a caterpillar to a butterfly or design and build a rocket. Educators then should purposefully provide opportunities for labs and discovery learning. They should also intentionally seek to support girls who might lose interest or have reduced confidence in STEM.
The path of mentorship in STEM as an elementary teacher
During my early years of teaching in a K-12 setting, I was able to engage with a significant number of girls who were very interested in STEM related fields. I noticed how quickly girls gave up on STEM as they completed middle school and ventured into high school and beyond. As a result, I adopted a hands-on approach to learning and searched for effective strategies that would enable girls to maintain their enthusiasm and persist through their later school years. I initiated discussions on the topic and encouraged students to participant in STEM afterschool programs. Although I was unaware at the time of the impact of these activities, through my later interactions with some students I realized the benefits of some of these early experiences and my contribution as an encourager of students in STEM.
One of the valuable components of our education program at Trinity International University is that we facilitate discussions in all our courses on what it means to be exceptional public and private school teachers who integrate faith into the classroom setting. In our science and math classes, our teachers in training (preservice) become more enthused about the subject, as we draw out the concepts and make significant connections to the Bible and real-world experiences. At times we find ourselves focusing on God’s power as revealed in His creation, and His wise and orderly character in mathematics. As preservice teachers become excited about STEM, they will eventually share this enthusiasm with their future students. From my personal experience and research, elementary school teachers play a vital role in encouraging and supporting girls in STEM subjects. I challenge you to focus on this unique opportunity!
Susie M. Cohen, PhD is the Associate Dean at Trinity International University – Florida. Visit them at tiu.edu/florida
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