ISE experiences can support girls’ interest in STEM

January 1st, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Grace Troxel and CAISE Admin. This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


The underrepresentation of women and people from other nondominant cultural groups in STEM is well documented (Taasoobshirazi & Carr, 2008; National Science Foundation, 2014).  Lyon and Jafri (2010) contend that girls of color face “social and cultural stereotypes that can steer them away from science, engineering, and math—both in and out of school” (p. 15). Many girls become disinterested in science in middle school due to stereotype threat, because they do not identify themselves as the kind of people who do science (Taasoobshirazi & Carr, 2008). ISE programs are poised to address belief systems and identities in relation to engagement and achievement that are important for supporting girls’ interest in STEM.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Below are examples of how ISE programs can support girls’ interest in STEM:

Developing Identity

To address girls’ perceptions of themselves as people who do science, Brickhouse (2001) recommended that science learning environments should make it possible for learners to practice trying on a variety of identities, including “environmentalist, feminist, or smart health-care consumer” (p. 289). Wenger argued that these kinds of practices “open new dimensions for the negotiation of self”, which is critical for meaningful learning to occur (1998, as cited in Brickhouse, 2001, p. 289).  Research by Hughes (2013) leads to the conclusion that a single sex environment is not necessary to strengthen girls’ STEM identity, but rather that programmatic elements such as the provision of authentic research experiences and STEM role models have a greater impact on identity development.

Providing Role Models

Meaningful interaction with role models gives girls a chance to consider various types of identities, as Brickhouse (2001) suggests. For example, Farland-Smith (2009) found that girls who worked “side by side” with scientists in a community of practice developed and expanded their understandings and positive perceptions of scientists. This experience with role models “appeared to cause the girls to search their own identities in the process of identifying if they could picture themselves in a particular science career” (Farland-Smith, 2009, p. 421). ISE experiences have the potential to provide opportunities for girls to engage with mentors in ways that support their understanding of how to negotiate science as a cultural world, navigate career trajectories, and imagine possible future selves (Markus & Nurius, 1986). Role models can be provided through media as well as in person.  The Techbridge project has produced several guides, including â€śRole Model Strategies: Encouraging Girls to Consider STEM Careers” and the â€śRole Models Matter Toolkit” to provide strategies for practitioners to incorporate role models into their programming.

Creating Collaborative Learning Environments

Studies have demonstrated that girls benefit from collaborating with their peers.  For example, girls playing the Click! game noticed their peers’ abilities in science and technology (Giarratani, Parikh, DiSalvo, Knutson, & Crowley, 2011). This focus on collaborative learning is a part of the foundation of the SciGirls initiative and a set of seven research-based strategies used in SciGirls outreach and media ( Regalla et al 2010). Girls are energized by the social part of science – working and learning together. When they collaborate, girls are likely to remember not only what they learned, but also how they felt when they learned it. Collaborative approaches that emphasize allowing all voices to be heard and value varied ways of making sense of the world (Harding, 1986, as cited in Barton, 1997) are important design elements that value the competencies learners bring with them, while also empowering them to expand and explore their possibilities (Brickhouse, 2001).

Putting Girls at the Center

Educators who understand the structures of power in learning environments and who see themselves as facilitators of knowledge production and identity development can emphasize the reciprocal nature of co-construction of learning among youth and adults. Denner, Bean, and Martinez (2009) found that involving families and role models in the community affirmed “cultural traditions while providing students with mentors and resources” (Kong, 2011). DeGennaro & Brown (2009) found that when program activities drew on the expertise, interests, and strengths of youth, they experienced powerful transformations within the context of an afterschool ISE (Bricker, 2011). Taking youth funds of knowledge into account in science learning positions youth as collaborators and experts in ways that allow them to see science as an integral part of their everyday experiences (e.g. Calabrese Barton & Tan, 2009Rahm, 2008).

Long-term Impacts

Although much of the research regarding girls’ interest and identity in STEM has focused on short-term outcomes, there has been some work demonstrating that informal learning experiences have a long-term impact on girls’ interest in STEM.  The Cascading Influences report from the Franklin Institute identified four long-term outcomes when following up with girls who had been part of a single sex informal education program:

  1. Memories of STEM experiences became critical resources in girls’ stories about their lives.

  2. Despite evidence of positive influences on women’s views of science, data revealed continued tensions in the ways girls/women think about what counts as science, complicating their relationship to, and identification with, science.

  3. Informal STEM experiences served as opportunities for participants to first explore and then, through continued participation, meaningfully engage in a wide variety of STEM-related activities and practices, ways of thinking, and communities that led some women to develop positive relationships with science that moved well beyond what society credits or defines as science.

  4. Many women identified themselves as science learners and advocates who wish to share their passion and discovery of science with others.

Another study by Adams, Gupta, and Cotumaccio follows eight alumnae from the Lang Science Program.  Their experience demonstrates that 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.


Adams, J., Gupta, P., & Cotumaccio, A.  Long-Term Participants: A Museum Program Enhances Girls’ STEM Interest, Motivation, and Persistence.  Afterschool Matters 20: 13-20.  Retrieved from

Bevan, B. (2011). Designing research-based afterschool science programs for girls: An ISE research brief discussing Lyon & Jafri’s Project Exploration’s Sisters4Science. San Francisco: Exploratorium. Retrieved from

Bricker, L. (2011). How history, culture, and identity mediate the design of digital learning environments: An ISE research brief discussing DeGennaro & Brown’s Youth voices: Connections between history, enacted culture and identity in a digital divide initiative. Seattle: University of Washington. Retrieved from

Brickhouse, N. W. (2001). Embodying science: A feminist perspective on learning. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 38(3), 282-295.

Building Engineering and Science Talent (BEST). (2004). The Talent Imperative: Diversifying America’s Science and Engineering Workforce. Retrieved on October 27, 2009, from

Calabrese Barton, A. (1997). Liberatory Science Education: Weaving Connections Between Feminist Theory and Science Education. Curriculum Inquiry, 27(2), 141-163.

Calabrese Barton, A., & Tan, E. (2009). Funds of knowledge and discourses and hybrid space. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46(1)50-73.  Retrieved from

DeGennaro, D., & Brown, T. L. (2009). Youth voices: Connections between history, enacted culture and identity in a digital divide initiative. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 4(1), 13–39.

Denner, J., Bean, S., & Martinez, J. (2009). The Girl Game Company: Engaging Latina girls in information technology.  Afterschool Matters, 8, 26–35.  Retrieved from

Farland-Smith, D. (2009). Exploring Middle School Girls’ Science Identities: Examining Attitudes and Perceptions of Scientists when Working “Side-by-Side” with Scientists. School Science and Mathematics, 109(7), 415-427. Retrieved from’_Science_Identities

Giarratani, L., Parikh, A., DiSalvo, B., Knutson, K., & Crowley, K. (2011).  Click!: Pre-teen girls and a mixed reality role playing game for science and technology.  Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy, 3.6, 121-138.  Retrieved from!

Hughes, R. (2013). The Single Sex Debate for Girls in Science: A Comparison Between Two Informal Science Programs on Middle School Students’ STEM Identity Formation.  Research in Science Education, 13(5).  Retrieved from

Kasad, R. (2014). Role Models Matter Toolkit. Techbridge. Retrieved from

Kekelis, L. & Joyce, J. (2013). Role Model Strategies: Encouraging Girls to Consider STEM Careers. Retrieved from

Kong, F. (2011). Encouraging Latinas toward IT careers: An ISE research brief discussing Denner et al’s The Girl Game Company: Engaging Latina girls in information technology. San Francisco: Exploratorium. Retrieved from

Lyon, G., & Jafri, J. (2010). Project Exploration’s Sisters4Science, Afterschool Matters, 11, 15-22.  Retrieved from

Markus, H. & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41, 954-969.

McCreedy, D. & Dierking, L. (2013).  Cascading Influences: Long-Term Impacts of STEM Informal Experiences for Girls.  Philadelphia, PA: The Franklin Institute.  Retrieved from

National Science Foundation (2014).  Science and Engineering Indicators 2014.  Retrieved from

Rahm, J. (2008). Urban youths ’ hybrid positioning in science practices at the margin : a look inside a school – museum – scientist partnership project and an after-school science program. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 3, 97-121.  Retrieved from

Taasoobshirazi, G., & Carr, M. (2008). Gender Differences in Science: An Expertise Perspective. Educational Psychology Review, 20(2) 149-169.