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Engaging Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM): 10 Tips for Parents

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by Harriet S. Mosatche. PhD

Girls are heavily influenced by what their parents say and do. That’s why a year ago, two colleagues and I wrote a guide book for parents called, Breaking Through! Helping Girls Succeed in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Even subtle comments and small actions can have a major impact on girls’ aspirations, their sense of competence, and their interest in STEM fields. From our own research, our interviews with dozens of females involved in STEM, and our review of the extensive research literature, we came up with numerous tips, ideas, and activities, which are thoroughly explained in our book. Below are 10 suggestions that parents can implement right away to foster STEM engagement in their daughters.

  1. Make STEM part of your everyday life. The evidence is clear that learning doesn’t begin and end at the classroom door. Here are a few ways to expose your daughter to STEM every day and everywhere. Give her an allowance so she’ll have a good reason to use math to calculate how long it will take to save up for a new gadget. Instead of giving her an answer, encourage her to figure out how to find information online and evaluate its accuracy. Your daughter can explore engineering concepts on the playground (How does a seesaw work?) or at the amusement park (What role does centrifugal force play in certain rides?). Remember to ask questions, such as: “What do you think will happen?” or “How else could you solve that problem?”
  2. Expose your daughter to role models and mentors. If your daughter doesn’t see people who are like her in computer science, engineering, or other STEM fields in which females are underrepresented, it’s tough to imagine herself in that role in the future. After-school programs, museums, and work places are filled with potential role models. Many women in STEM fields are just waiting to be asked to talk about their careers (and their lives). If you can’t think of potential role models for your daughter, ask around — some friends and relatives will surely have recommendations. And don’t forget about the many female role models you can find in books, movies, TV shows, and other media. The movie, Hidden Figures, with its human “computers,” has become a source of inspiration for many girls. Online biographies of real women in STEM are available on the NASA website and other sites.
  3. Be aware of the extensive gender bias in commercial toys, games, and kits. When I was doing research for Breaking Through, I was disappointed to find gender bias alive and well on the shelves of major toy stores. Whether it’s the packaging, the colors, or even the placement of items, sexism continues to be rampant. Don’t shy away from getting your daughter a chemistry set because the kits only depict boys. You can tape a girl’s photograph (perhaps your daughter’s) on the package before you give it to her. Look for manufacturers that encourage girls to explore all fields of STEM, such as Roominate Toys, which offers kids the opportunity to build houses and then wire rooms with lights and fans. The company has even created apps that allow girls to program their rooms from their phones.
  4. Provide hands-on activities in STEM that are fun and educational. You and your daughter can experiment in easy and safe ways, whether you’re making dough or a substance called “oobleck.” And when your daughter doesn’t see the usefulness of math, encourage her to explore the many ways your family relies on math in everyday life, such as in comparison shopping, budgeting, and understanding charts and data in political races. The internet is filled with ideas for “kitchen science.” Just Google the term. Find opportunities for your daughter — even if she’s in elementary school — to learn to code through an online site or in after-school programs or clubs.
  5. Explore STEM through trips with your daughter. Think about every trip outside the house as an opportunity to engage your daughter in STEM. Science museums, botanical gardens, zoos, and planetariums are certainly fun places to visit, particularly since so many are now interactive, but you can also explore STEM at parks, lakes, workplaces, and many other settings. The key is remembering that STEM is everywhere. As often as possible, ask questions that inspire your daughter to hypothesize and analyze. At the beach, ask her why there are waves. At the ice-skating rink, ask what allows her to keep her balance. At the athletic store, ask her about the factors that make one type of sneakers more expensive or more effective than others. You get the point — it’s all about taking advantage of every environment to get your daughter to recognize the importance of STEM.
  6. Advocate for STEM opportunities for your daughters in school. While some schools provide all types of basic and enrichment activities in STEM, many are sorely lacking. As a parent, you can play an important role as an advocate. First, notice the positive — maybe science displays or science fairs — and let your school know you appreciate those. Second, determine what’s missing — maybe no books about female inventors or no girls in after-school coding or math clubs — and volunteer your help to remediate the situation. Get involved in your school’s PTA or committees. Groups are often more effective than individuals when advocating for change.
  7. Help your daughter become media savvy so she can critically evaluate messages. Just as might have noticed the bias in toy packaging, you will also recognize how girls are either left out or shown in stereotyped ways in many television programs, books, movies, and online. You can both be a role model as an advocate and also encourage your daughter to voice her opinion — positive and negative — about what she sees and hears in the media. If your daughter is old enough, she might use her Twitter, Facebook, or other social media accounts to advocate for change. Snail mail could be even more effective since people don’t write too often any longer.
  8. Support a strong growth mindset in your daughter. Years ago, psychologist Carol Dweck developed an important concept — the growth mindset — that has been widely disseminated and applied. Basically, when people recognize their mistakes as opportunities to learn, they are more likely to forge ahead rather than give up. Research has found that many females drop out of engineering and computer science classes and careers because they look at their dismal performance on a test or project as an indication that they are failures. Helping them recognize that ability is malleable and that they can improve should lead to persistence, which is key to sticking with STEM subjects and careers.
  9. Foster creative problem-solving, leadership, and teamwork skills. The more experience your daughter has using her creativity (and yes, everyone can increase their creativity) to solve problems, the better prepared she will be to attack problems in life and in STEM subjects and her career. The importance of creativity in STEM work is often overlooked, but it’s a key aspect of the field. Whether your daughter is working on a school project or deciding how to resolve a conflict with a friend, she can gain practice being creative. Two other skills that are critical for STEM are leadership and teamwork. While many people stereotype STEM as fields in which people work solo, the truth is that collaboration plays a major role in discovery. Team sports and other extracurricular activities provide a fertile field for learning about being a solid team member as well as developing leadership skills.
  10. Encourage your daughter’s sense of belonging in STEM. It’s hard to stay with a group if you don’t feel connected to it. A sense of belonging in STEM goes a long way toward females sticking with science, technology, engineering, and math, and particularly when so many other forces (such as stereotypes) are pushing her in another direction. When your daughter experiments at home (with anything), you might say, “You’re acting like a scientist.” Or when she creates some kind of gadget, tell her that engineers do that kind of thing. And encourage her to to join a club related to her STEM interests, such as a coding club, at school, or she could even start a new club with her friends.

The importance of girls becoming competent and engaged in STEM can not be emphasized enough. Elizabeth K. Lawner, one of the co-authors of Breaking Through! Helping Girls Succeed in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math and a researcher studying the barriers that women face in STEM said: “The better our understanding of STEM facts and concepts, the more capable we are of making positive decisions in every aspect of our lives — from what to buy to whom to vote for. In today’s complex world, knowledge of STEM methods and data is not a luxury but a true necessity.”