Many studies done in the last few years have shown that girls lose interest in STEM fields by early high school.1,2 Some reasons cited for the girls’ fading interest include a lack of encouragement in STEM classes, a lack of female role models in STEM fields, and a belief that STEM fields are masculine. Another major reason is a belief that girls are worse at math than boys, even though there is no evidence of a male “math brain.”3 In my own experience, I’ve seen girls in my community lose interest in STEM as early as upper elementary and junior high.
In 2014, two of my female sophomore chemistry students approached me because they were frustrated that their female friends had lost interest in STEM fields in late elementary school/junior high, and they wanted to take some kind of action that would encourage girls to pursue STEM careers. Later that year, we formed our Girls in STEM (GSTEM) club, with the dual purpose of encouraging and supporting high school girls to study the STEM subjects, and providing outreach programs targeted to elementary-age girls interested in STEM.
I’ve been the club advisor for many years, and working with the girls (both those in high school and in elementary school) has been one of the greatest joys of my career. Watching the high school girls mature, as well as helping them to develop confidence and leadership skills, has energized me and my teaching career.
Meetings for young and older
|Figure 1. Students participating in the build-a-boat activity.
Our high school club meetings occur after school and are run by our student club president. The focus of the meetings ranges from collaborating on the development of our elementary outreach curriculum, to planning and attending STEM-related community events, to engaging with logic puzzles, participating in book clubs, and planning field trips.
To accommodate the ages and abilities of our elementary students, we divide club meetings to focus on 1st-3rd grade (during the first semester) and have 4th-6th grade meetings in the second semester. We visit each of our district’s six elementary schools to conduct a no-cost, 2-hour outreach meeting. Again, our club president runs the overall meeting, with her fellow high school students working with groups of 4-6 of the younger girls.
At each of these events, we play math and card games with the younger girls, such as Jeopardy, Around the World, Close Call, and Make Ten (instructions for all of these are easy to find in the public domain on the web).
We also lead the younger girls in the engineering challenge called “build-a-boat,” where students must construct a boat out of common materials (cardboard, aluminum foil, tape, etc.). The goal is to see which boat will support the most pennies by testing them in a tub of water (Figure 1). After testing, the students have time to remake their boats so they can improve on their designs.
For many of the engineering activities, students are given a budget and a list of materials, and then they must determine how to spend their budget. The science component of our meetings includes a “make and take” project that students can take home; for example, we have created rainbow tubes (Figure 2) and paper circuits (Figure 3). Each project also includes a science lesson and discussion.
Figure 2. An example of a rainbow tube.
Figure 3. An example of paper circuits created by elementary students.
Due to the age of the students and access to technology, we currently don’t plan any technology-based activities, using iPads or laptop computers.
The Girls in STEM club is part of the Jenison Public School community, so we also take part in the homecoming parade. Any elementary student is invited to walk with our high school club. The younger girls love the opportunity to walk in the parade alongside their older role models.
Other STEM events
Figure 4. A presentation screen from the Women in STEM Brunch.
|Figure 5. Members of GSTEM posing with the club’s entry in the world’s largest periodic table challenge.|
While a large focus of our club is on elementary age girls, it is important to encourage and support the high school girls too. At the end of each semester, Grand Valley State University (GVSU) holds an Engineering Project Day. We attend the event every other year so that the girls can visit the local campus (located in Allendale, a couple of miles from our school) and learn about the field of engineering. We have also taken day trips to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi lab in Batavia, IL, and the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.
One of our biggest high school events is the Women in STEM Brunch, which occurs in our school’s media center (Figure 4). This biennial event brings together West Michigan high school students and women professionals who work in STEM, the students’ desired field of study. After eating, we play networking games such as speed dating, giving everyone a chance to interact with one another.
In past brunches, these relationships have resulted in job shadow experiences, and connections that continued long after the event. In a typical year, 50-70 high school and professional women have attended. My goal for the brunch is for every student to meet a role model in their desired STEM field. The event has been a huge success, and really excites both the younger and older attendees.
I also encourage the girls to participate and engage in issues in our community. We attended rallies on different issues, such as the local March for Our Lives rally and the Science March at the state capital. In 2019, GVSU helped in an attempt to form the world’s largest periodic table, and as a group we created the entry for plutonium (see Figure 5).
Serving as mentor
As the teacher advisor for this club, my role is to act as mentor and to give the high schoolers the autonomy to plan and execute lessons and activities for younger students.
Many of the girls join our club in 9th grade and participate for four years. It is a thrill to watch them grow and mature. As freshmen, the girls are timid and often lack self-confidence. But over the months, they find their voice, and begin to help shape the personality and direction of the club. Most of our current members fondly recall attending GSTEM meetings during their own elementary school experience. It is wonderful to hear their excitement when speaking about their early GSTEM experiences.
As club advisor, I am also in charge of obtaining funding for the group. Our first year, we received a Jenison Public Education Foundation grant. Since then, all our funding has come from private donors through our GoFundMe page. Each year we raise money for the following school year, so that we can continue to offer free programming.
I also coordinate our meetings with local elementary schools. I act as the liaison between our group and each school’s principals and parents, sharing links to our advertising and registration pages.
Impact on students
Our GSTEM club has had a tremendous impact on elementary and high school students. Many of our high school’s female computer science students cite their early participation in the GSTEM meetings (while they were in elementary school) as a big reason they became interested in computer programming.
Even though we don’t include technology activities in our outreach meetings, just knowing that older girls are interested in computer programming has a positive influence on them. The younger girls love spending time with “cool” older students, and years later, they remember the one-to-one attention they received. When the high school students reflect on their time in elementary school, girls describe the GSTEM programs as empowering and confidence building. Weekly, I receive emails from parents describing their daughters’ excitement after the meetings.
By their senior year, the GSTEM high school students gain organization and communication skills from planning every part of the elementary meetings. They develop interpersonal, mentoring, and leadership skills from working in small groups with younger students, and at the same time learn how to engage in big picture planning and take responsibility for the short- and long-term direction of the group. They also gain confidence from seeing their ideas come to fruition.
Even better, many of the young women who got involved with our club have discovered a passion for working with students, and are considering careers in teaching. They’ve also been accepted to internships and summer programs partly based on being part of GSTEM. Several group members have attended ivy league schools, and earned full scholarships to college. One of the group’s founding members is currently working on her Ph.D. in astronomy at UCLA.
An opportunity and honor
|Figure 6. The author attended the 2022 ACS Awards Banquet as the recipient of the James Bryant Conant Award in High School Chemistry Teaching.
Earlier in my teaching career, I never had an opportunity to work with the same students for four consecutive years. Since I teach both first-year and AP chemistry, I often have students for two years; but once they leave my classroom, I’m no longer an active part of their lives. However, as the mentor of Girls in STEM, I have an opportunity to have longer-lasting relationships with my students, as well as a more substantial impact. Witnessing the growth of these young women firsthand has been extremely inspirational and rewarding.
1. Microsoft News Centre Europe webpage. “Why don’t European girls like science or technology?” https://news.microsoft.com/europe/features/dont-european-girls-like-science-technology/ (accessed Feb 12, 2023).
2. AAUW Research & Data webpage. “The STEM Gap: Women and Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.” https://www.aauw.org/resources/research/the-stem-gap/ (accessed Feb 12, 2023).
3. AAUW Education webpage. “The Myth of the Male Math Brain.” https://www.aauw.org/resources/article/the-myth-of-the-male-math-brain/ (accessed Feb 12, 2023).
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