Since Windows 95 effectively made the internet a household staple in developed nations, it has been increasingly clear that STEM literacy is no longer an optional skill. Ubiquitous to practically every industry, computing, critical thinking, collective problem solving, and digital literacy are essential skills that either empower or impair potential success. As the need for STEM literacy has grown at exponential rates over the past two decades, alarming gaps in STEM industries have surfaced (and even widened). In particular, racial and gender gaps in STEM fields (especially in positions of leadership) continue to plague executives across nearly every sector.
While the two gaps do not exist in isolation, the recently published report, Girls, STEM and Careers: Decoding Girls' Futures in an Age of Social Media by Ruling Our eXperiences, Inc. (ROX) reveals that much work is left to be done to eliminate the gender gap in STEM. Among other trends, the report shines a damning light on one of the primary factors contributing to the perpetual gender gap in STEM. Simply put, by high school, female students demonstrate significantly less confidence in their ability to succeed in STEM. In spite of the fact that female students are increasingly indicating a strong interest in STEM fields, they often face myriad external factors that contribute to a lack of perceived ability to thrive in their dream jobs.
Despite cultural awareness of the need to show women as successful leaders in STEM roles, the gaps continue to surface. From Mattel's Barbie Careers Game Developer Doll to Goldie Blocks, an entire cottage industry has evolved to target young female students in hopes of empowering girls to see themselves in traditionally male dominated roles. Media conglomerates are taking note and are finally (occasionally) beginning to cast women in roles that value their intellectual contributions over their sex appeal.
While much work remains to level the playing field in STEM in the national arena, a wave of momentum is growing. National organizations are working diligently to target female students in middle grades (where we see a systemic decline of female self-efficacy in STEM) through a wide-range of strategic initiatives aimed at giving students role models, access to safe learning environments, and opportunities to marry interests with aptitude in order to experience early success in STEM. Fighting traditional gender roles is no small task, but a glimpse into local communities sheds light on pockets of success that could hold the key to rewriting this narrative that has plagued our country for generations.
In Elizabeth Forward, PA, school leaders have created girls only digital fabrication classes that have given female students an opportunity to thrive in a advanced manufacturing digital fabrication lab (FabLab) while demonstrating a propensity to thrive as problem solvers when given access to advanced technology and the time and space to engage in authentic problem solving. The district also has a partnership with Real World Scholars through which teams of female students thrive as entrepreneurs. In Chattanooga, TN we are seeing similar momentum building. In this year's Teacherpreneur cohort, teachers from three diverse schools (an urban elementary school, a suburban middle high school, and a high performing magnet platform school) are working together to expand a girls coding club that could break the world record for number of female students coding this spring!
However, the strategies cannot be limited to providing isolated activities that segregate by gender. After all, post-secondary success for female students will happen in a vacuum. They will have to compete with their male counterparts--often being forced to overcome gender biases held by executives. This is where I'm most excited with the early success we are seeing through the Volkswagen eLabs. Once deemed the playground of the privileged, an innovative partnership between Volkswagen Group of America, the State of Tennessee, Hamilton County Schools, and the Public Education Foundation has resulted in nearly 12,000 students from grades 6-12 having extensive experiences through digital fabrication. While the program is still in its infancy and thus impossible to support quantitative impact reports (yet), anecdotal evidence suggests that female students are not only engaging in the labs, they are thriving. In a traditionally underperforming urban middle school, a team of female 6th graders realized what was possible and developed a custom apparel business that generated more than $5,000 in revenue in the first six months on the market. The business is developed and run entirely by this team of female entrepreneurs--design, web management, business management, marketing, product development...these young ladies do it all. In other labs across the district, female students are emerging as master 3D designers and burgeoning coders!
The theory is simple, give students--all students--opportunities to engage in innovative learning environments that seamlessly blend access to digital fabrication technologies, expert teachers, and authentic problems, and the results take care of themselves. At STEM School Chattanooga, this surfaces by empowering students to thrive as autonomous problem identifiers and problem solvers--or as most people put it...as entrepreneurs. Because of the model of the school, students enter their senior year with a unique skill set that empowers them to tackle practically any problem and share their results in a Shark Tank style pitch event. At a recent event, two young ladies shared a riding pad they created for competitive horse riding. Neither student considered themselves "stemy," but by their senior year, they realized STEM was more of a mindset than an acronym. As equestrian competitors, they were familiar with the field and knew that one particular riding pad was the gold standard. After engaging in some market research, they began prototyping and developing an alternative pad in their school's FabLab. Their final product and pitch were amazing, but the most important part was their increased confidence to succeed in STEM.
When students are given opportunities to solve personally relevant problems by leveraging access to real tools and teacher experts, they inevitably develop confidence and self-efficacy that empowers them to succeed in the post-secondary pathway of their choosing.
While it is always easy to highlight individual stories of success, systemic improvements are much more difficult to attain (and prove). As the ROX report points out, we still have work to do to eliminate the gender gap in STEM, but the convergence of national initiatives and local proponents pushing for more opportunities to effectively engage females in STEM may create such a groundswell of momentum that success becomes inevitable!
Cleveland Rotary Club
Innovating Education Through Community Partners
NEA Foundation The Promise of Public Ed
Leveraging Teacher Leadership to Increase STEM Education
US Senate Briefing
The Need for a National Organizing Body of Digital Fabrication
NACCE California Symposium
Scaling Innovation through Partnerships
Volkswagen eLab Ribbon Cutting
Why Digital Fabrication can't be an Option
NSTA STEM Leadership
Developing, Incubating, and Implementing Public/Private Partnerships that Matter
Chattanooga Fab Institute
Revolutionizing Learning through Digital Fabrication
HCDE Future Ready Institute Launch
Developing PBL Units with Business Partners
STEM Fellows Celebration
Community Partnerships for Teacher Leadership
Scaling Innovation in Schools
Remake Learning Days
Dig Fab in the Community
Public/Private Partnerships Panel
Digital Fabrication in the Modern Classroom
Redesign for Student Success (San Diego)
Scaling Innovation through Digital Fabrication
GE Leadership Summit
Leveraging Innovative Technologies for Learning
Texas Open Innovation
Emerging Innovations in Education
FFT Leading & Learning
Connecting Global Ed
reMake Education Summit
National Governor's Asc.
Coding with Governors
US Dept of Education
Round Table with Secretary John King
K-12 Pathways for CS
K-12 Education Panel
Reducing the Racial Gap in Computing
Boston Museum of Science
Teaching with Toys
US Dept of Education
MSP CS Proposition