Girls especially should take advantage of STEM education opportunities long before college.
Are boys naturally better than girls when it comes to STEM learning?
This long-standing myth was again put to rest by the fact that girls outperformed boys on the 2018 Technology & Engineering Literacy Assessment, given to 15,400 eighth graders at about 600 schools across the U.S.
This isn’t the first time that eighth-grade girls did better than their male peers at the TEL assessment, but the gender score gap increased from three points in 2014 to five in 2018. Additionally, female students earned higher scores in even more content areas and practices than four years ago.
These results beg several questions. Why do young women in high school make up only 23% of Advanced Placement exam takers in computer science, less than 20% of recipients of bachelor’s degrees in computer and information science, and just over a quarter of the entire computing workforce, according to research by consulting firm McKinsey? What is the disconnect between the high-achieving girls who do so well on the TEL in eighth grade and the dearth of women who participate in STEM learning and STEM fields in high school, college and, ultimately, careers?
At a “codeathon” for high school girls hosted in April by e-commerce company Booking.com, actress and activist Laura Dern offered one hypothesis. There’s a misconception that professional coders work only at stereotypical technology companies, she said in an interview. In reality, teaching girls coding at early ages opens career doors even beyond STEM fields.
“Coders and girls in STEM are women learning a language to allow them to be in every industry,” she said. “They are artists. They are inventors. They are going to cure diseases. They are in the world of AI. They will be cinematographers with a whole new concept of film and computer-generated imagery and motion capture. They’re fashion designers – they’re everything.”
After observing the event participants demonstrate their coding creations, Dern expressed optimism that girls will realize there are myriad ways to apply science and technology skills in the working world.
“These coders, they’re creating their own web pages – and they’re violinists and soccer players and chefs and coders and fine artists,” Dern said. “One girl’s Carl Sagan-obsessed, and the other girl loves design and the other girl loves to make bubble tea. Everybody’s got their own stuff going on and it’s really exciting, who they are.”
Indeed, helping high school girls develop passion for STEM education and opportunities is a key step on the road to creating female scientists and women who code.
The fact that girls still face unique challenges when it comes to pursuing STEM as a career option – the onus is on concerned adults to expose young women to the excitement that these vocations can bring. Pointing girls toward sites that highlight top STEM careers that are both obvious (like web developer, computer systems administrator and software developer) and less so (like school psychologist, political scientist and cartographer) can illuminate ideas for career paths that might not have otherwise been considered.
Exposing the reality of the female talent gap in hot fields like cyber-security, as well as promoting the chance to shake up the world through life-changing scientific discoveries, can also light a fire that encourages more women to tap into their interest and ability in STEM.