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STEM has been getting a lot of attention these days in equality, education, career choices, and how we view the future. However, women are under-represented in STEM education and careers – not only is this a disservice to women, it also takes away a huge pool of resources that we need for our future. How we can move completely away from gender stereotypes and balance out STEM so it’s equally available for both girls and boys?
One answer is to start at the beginning, in childhood when gender roles are defined for children at a very early age. The earlier we support a natural inclination for STEM topics for both girls and boys, allowing them to make their own connections and come up with their own solutions, the quicker we’ll be able to bridge the gap between female and male biased STEM education and careers.
What is STEM
The concept of STEM is tossed around a lot, but let’s be clear on what STEM is. It’s the integration of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as the main base for thinking and learning. Using a STEM approach to learning encourages children to think and solve real problems in creative ways, using the principles of all four learning subjects.
Using STEM skills and education, students can join some of the fastest-growing sectors in the workplace after graduating. And it all starts in the early years. For children in grade school a STEM based curriculum lets students take basic skills to a new level by questioning why and how things work the way they do.
But STEM is about more than focusing our education endeavors on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – it’s about embracing the way we think, allowing our natural curiosity to guide us in how and what we learn no matter what gender we are.
STEM Gets Stuck in Gender Inequality
Gender equality begins with moving away from thinking that we’re doing a good thing by emphasizing STEM is just as important for girls as it is to boys, to a world-wide assumption that STEM is for everyone. And this begins in those early years, when children are unassuming about gender roles until they learn otherwise.
There’s still a much larger percentage of boys than girls who pursue a STEM education and career. But this is changing faster than ever. School systems around the world are encouraging students of all ages to take part in classes and projects that allow them to think outside of the box.
When students from early education all the way to university are allowed and encouraged to follow their curiosity down roads that are STEM based, they’re prepared for anything whether they end up pursuing a STEM career or not.
Using STEM in School Programs
Let me personalize this with my own experience of a forward-thinking STEM program. The Challenge Program in the Burnaby, British Columbia school district identifies children in grade school who exhibit “creative, intellectual, and social” skills in their learning. These children are invited to take part in sessions that challenge them to think creatively in whatever way they choose.
My eight-year old niece was invited to participate – she was excited to be joining a few of her other classmates in the program – girls and boys because there is no distinction between girls and boys in the program. And this is a good thing, helping to cross out the line in the playground and moving away from the old idea that girls belong on one side of that line and boys on the other.
During one of the Challenge sessions my niece was asked to find her own unique way to build a bridge with popsicle sticks. Her take on a wooden bridge was entirely her own, built after much thought and experimentation. When complete, her bridge stood on its own, with a proud little engineer pleased with the result. Who yet knows whether she’ll become an engineer or follow in her father’s footsteps and become a physicist, but with supportive parents, STEM, and an educational system that supports the Challenge Program, she can be anything she wants to be.
STEM Learning In and Out of the Classroom
We need more of these programs for preschool and grade school that ignore gender and encourage both girls and boys to participate. We need more opportunities for children to think creatively using STEM concepts, without thinking that only boys can be engineers and that girls are never seen in the science lab. And we need to provide them with educational materials that support and explore what STEM is all about – books and games that are STEM related, team projects for creative brainstorming, and trips to art galleries and museums, to name a few.
As more and more young girls are being empowered to think and solve problems, we’re getting closer each day to gender equality. We need to take advantage of opportunities outside of the classroom to empower young girls and break down the barriers of gender. Whenever possible we need to let these girls meet women who are working in STEM careers, to let these role models talk about the many opportunities in STEM and that girls are capable of doing it all.
Another way to empower young girls today is to introduce them to STEM themed books that are written by inspirational women. Some good examples include “Ara the Star Engineer” by Komal Singh, a story about Ara as she uses an algorithm to solve problems, and “Mae Among the Stars” by Roda Ahmend and illustrated by Stasia Burrington, which tells the story of Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to travel to space. “The Most Magnificent Thing” by Ashley Spires is another good choice, about a young girl using her creativity and never giving up on building a “thing”.
STEM is for everyone. For children it’s about experimenting, understanding, and evaluating the world around them. STEM provides them with valuable skills that help them use their mind objectively, questioning what they’re learning while still having fun. It will be interesting to see what this next STEM generation is going to do next.