How Schools Are Improving STEM Education for Girls, Students of Color

Careers involving science, technology, engineering and mathematics have a promising future. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020 STEM occupations paid more than double that of non-STEM occupations, on average, and those jobs are expected to grow rapidly through 2030.

Yet women are vastly underrepresented in the field: In 2019, 73% of STEM workers were men. Additionally, Hispanic and Black workers represented only 8% and 9% of the STEM field, despite making up 17% and 11% of the workforce overall, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

For girls, interest in STEM seems to decline as they get older. Thirty-one percent of middle school girls believe that jobs requiring coding and programming are “not for them,” according to a 2018 Microsoft Philanthropies report. That percentage jumps to 40% in high school, while 58% of girls count themselves out of a job in these fields beginning in college.

“In elementary schools, there is a large sense of wondering with how the world works,” says David Rosengrant, interim director of education at the University of South Florida‘s St. Petersburg campus and a professor of STEM education. “There is an interest in science and how things work the way that they do. But yet something happens later on in upper grades where sometimes that sense goes away and they don’t get the level of support to pursue STEM as a career.”

Why Do Students Lose Interest in STEM?

Part of the reason interest in STEM can wane is a lack of exposure to role models who share similar identities or backgrounds to students, experts say. Thirty-percent of girls and 40% of women say they envision scientists, engineers, mathematicians or computer programmers as men, the Microsoft report found. However, girls who know a woman in a STEM profession are more likely to feel empowered when they engage in STEM activities.

[Read: How to Find the Best Coding Programs for Kids.]

Some youth may also associate STEM with being “nerdy” or “not interesting,” says Katie McCormick, director of product at Promethean, a global education technologies company. But STEM “really applies to all kinds of interests and hobbies,” she says. “Things that you might want to do in the world, it’s always going to be relevant.”

Experts say that providing youth — especially young girls and students of color — with role models and access to STEM-related activities or clubs can help them see the possibilities and real-world applications of these subjects.

“We know not everyone is going to go into a STEM career,” says Lindzy Bivings, senior manager of school and community programs at the California Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit science museum. “But having that exposure is something that’s incredibly important to help people understand the world around them.”

Expanding STEM Opportunities

There has been an ongoing effort in recent years by some school districts and organizations to create opportunities for STEM learning both inside and outside of the classroom, with equity and access at the forefront of the conversation. But that comes with challenges, especially for communities with limited resources, as STEM programming often requires additional technology and materials.

It can also be difficult to find STEM teachers: Many districts around the country face teacher shortages, particularly in areas like math, science, foreign languages and special education.

“Getting an advanced degree in a STEM subject matter in addition to your education degree is hard and can be a little costly,” says Roby Chatterji, associate director for K-12 education policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington D.C.-based public policy organization. “So a lot of folks who have an advanced STEM degree often choose to go into a private industry. The incentive and appetite to be in schools can be challenging because, notoriously, teacher working conditions and pay are not great.”

Still, some school districts and organizations are finding ways to make STEM learning appealing and inclusive.

“Making that the norm at all schools is something that we need to aspire to, but it can’t necessarily be done with just philanthropy,” Chatterji says. “There has to be a real state investment or federal investment to do that.”

STEM in Schools

Each year, students in the Austin Independent School District in Texas participate in an “Hour of Code,” a national campaign that happens during Computer Science Education Week in which students commit to doing one hour of computer coding. But the learning doesn’t stop there.

This summer, Austin ISD distributed 9,000 STEM take-home kits to rising third, fourth and fifth graders enrolled at Title I campuses, or schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families. Using the materials they were given, as well as ones found at home, students were challenged to solve problems.

[Read: 10 Fun STEM Activities for Kids.]

Additionally, to address gender and culturally based implicit biases that occur in the classroom, many teachers within the district participate in a STEM-focused professional development program.

“The professional development is looked at through the lens of STEM careers in order to help our students see themselves in STEM careers,” Danielle Perico, director of STEM at the Austin school district, wrote in an email. “We need to share real stories of women and underrepresented individuals in STEM fields so that students can see themselves in those fields. We don’t want to just see white males in lab coats.”

Meanwhile, the California Academy of Sciences partners with the San Francisco Unified School District to build curricula that connects students to local, real-life applications. One curriculum for third graders, for example, focuses on California redwoods, an ecosystem found in San Francisco and surrounding counties. Students visit these tree communities and learn about the scientists who study and protect them through the museum’s “Giants of Land and Sea” exhibit.

The goal is to expose students to different careers in science and also help them “really understand their local context and figure out what’s meaningful and relevant for them,” says Bivings.

Colleges and universities also play a role. For example, USF’s College of Education recently received a grant from Duke Energy that will support STEM programming for underrepresented students in the local community. USF plans to partner with nearby school districts to develop curriculum and STEM-oriented clubs.

After-School Programs

Another way to increase interest in STEM is through clubs, activities and after-school programs.

Middle school girls who participate in STEM clubs and activities are more than twice as likely to want to study physics in high school, and nearly three times as likely to say they’ll study engineering, according to the Microsoft report. And high school girls participating in related clubs or activities are about two and a half times more likely to want to continue studying computer science in college.

However, there are often barriers to enrolling in after-school programs.

[READ: How to Choose After-School Activities.]

Twenty-seven percent of parents in the lowest income bracket report that their child has technology and engineering activities available to them, compared to 44% of families in the highest income bracket, according to a 2021 report from the Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit focused on increasing access to affordable after-school programs. There is also a 15% gap between the lowest- and highest-income families being able to access computer science learning activities and a 14% gap between the groups in access to after-school STEM programs.

Many after-school programs are attempting to reduce affordability challenges.

The Digital Harbor Foundation in Baltimore, for example, has a “pay what you can” policy, as many of its programs are funded by grants and sponsorships. “It’s important to us that our programs are accessible to not just youth across Baltimore city, but just any youth that wants to attend our programs,” says Stephanie Alphee, tech center director at the foundation.

The nonprofit offers both educator and youth programming, which goes up to high school. Its year-round Mini-Makers program, for instance, is open to students in third through fifth grades, with activities ranging from creating simple circuits to making an arcade game.

“Our world is becoming increasingly connected to technology,” Alphee says. Kids “have to understand technology because it’s what they use in their current classrooms. It’s what they need in order to be functional people in their life now.”

Techbridge Girls is a nonprofit organization that encourages girls of color, including trans, gender non-conforming and non-binary youth, from low-income communities to pursue STEM education and careers. The organization provides curricula, which it describes as hands-on, gender-responsive and culturally relevant, to schools and community-based partners at no cost to students.

“We are using and leveraging STEM as a vehicle for economic mobility. Not only for their livelihoods, but for their families and generations to come,” says Nikole Collins-Puri, CEO of Techbridge Girls. A career in STEM “can change the trajectory of our girls’ lives.”

Similarly, Girlstart, a nonprofit aimed at increasing girls’ interest in STEM, hosts after-school programming at public schools in California, Massachusetts and Texas that’s free for students and doesn’t require them to travel. Girlstart also offers summer camps for girls in fourth to eighth grade, where activities tie in social issues from their local communities and introduce them to various STEM fields.

“We try and meet the girls and their families where they’re at, literally,” says Shane Woods, executive director of Girlstart. “Our intention is to empower, increase confidence and introduce STEM possibilities for young women, which may lead to careers.”

More from U.S. News

A Guide to STEM Majors

What to Know About STEM Public High Schools

How to Involve Your Child in Choosing a High School

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