Engaging Women in STEM through Informal Learning Experiences

March 11th, 2015

According to the National Science Foundation’s 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators, women remain underrepresented in STEM, accounting for only 28% of the science and engineering workforce despite making up 50% of the college-educated population in the US. The field of informal science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education provides opportunities to foster girls’ interest and engagement in STEM through channels such as educational media, museum exhibits, afterschool programs, and more.

Project Highlights

The National Science Foundation funds projects through a variety of programs to address the theme of gender equity in STEM education. For example, many projects in the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) portfolio aim to boost STEM engagement among underrepresented audiences. The ADVANCE program is designed to develop systematic approaches to increase participation of women in STEM careers and to develop sustainable ways to promote gender equity in the STEM workforce. The Research on Gender in Science and Engineering program, although no longer active, focused on research-based innovations to increase diversity in the science and engineering workforce. Here are a few examples of recent NSF-funded projects designed to boost girls’ engagement with science: The Girls RISE (Raising Interest in Science and Engineering) Museum Network project utilized a train-the-trainer approach to offer professional development supporting informal science educators’ efforts to engage minority girls in science and engineering. The project also produced a literature review as part of an international convening exploring issues of gender and equity in STEM learning. In the Girls Energy Conservation Corps,TERC partnered with the Girl Scouts to create an energy monitoring and conservation afterschool program. Project participants learn and apply science content and process, develop leadership and communication skills, and work on strategies to address the issue of climate change. The Techbridge project helps bridge critical junctures as girls transition between elementary, middle, and high school, providing role models and STEM career exploration activities. Techbridge recently developed the Role Models Matter Toolkit to help develop skills to engage girls and underrepresented youth in STEM through readings, videos, questions, and more. The Designing Our World project encourages youth, especially girls, to pursue an interest in engineering. Designing Our World a multi-pronged strategy to reach underserved audiences, including exhibits in two science centers, programming through community-based organizations, digital and social media outreach, and a community action group for professional development for practitioners involved with STEM identity work.

Evidence of Impact

The field of informal STEM education has long been interested in fostering girls’ STEM identities and engagement, but what do we really know about how girls learn science in the informal realm? The article “Long-Term Participants: A Museum Program Enhances Girls’ STEM Interest, Motivation, and Persistence,” by Jennifer Adams, Preeti Gupta, and Alix Cotumaccio describes findings from exploratory research conducted to document the experiences of a small group of young women of color who participated in a museum-based OST program during their middle and high school years. The program helped participants build a collective identity, fostered a sense of belonging within the museum space, provided exposure to science topics and careers, and helped with the transition from the museum to college. The report “Cascading Influences: Long-Term Impacts of STEM Informal Experiences for Girls” is the result of a collaboration between the Franklin Institute and the Institute for Learning Innovation. The project used a sociocultural lens to examine the ways in which participation in informal STEM learning experiences impacted young women’s lives. The study uncovered both successes and challenges related to girls’ continued identification and engagement with STEM. In the article “The Single Sex Debate for Girls in Science,” Roxanne Hughes from the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory explores whether single sex education makes a difference in the outcomes of informal learning program by comparing two STEM camps, one of which is all girls, and one of which is coed. Her results show that both programs showed similar results related to STEM identity formation, which suggests that a single sex environment is not as important to STEM identity as the pedagogy of the program itself. These are just a few examples of the research that can be found on InformalScience.org. How does your organization engage girls in STEM practices and career interest? What strategies have worked for you? Let us know by leaving a comment, reaching out to us on Twitter (@informalscience), or contacting us at caise@informalscience.org.

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