Once upon a time, a boy in my middle school Math League questioned why I was a member because “girls weren’t really good at math anyway.” The remark stung and happened to coincide with my own self-doubts. Although I had always been a very strong math student, I was struggling with that particular unit of 8th grade Algebra. I really questioned whether to go to the next Math League meeting.
I hadn’t thought much about that moment since then, until my own daughter, at age 13, came home with a similar story after attending a tech club meeting. I would have thought we had progressed more in thirty years, but apparently not.
Sadly, our shared experience doesn’t seem to be out of the ordinary. According to CNN Tech, girls are particularly vulnerable to losing interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields during the middle school years. Putting on my admissions officer hat for a moment, this also happens to be the time when the foundation is laid for high school honors-level math and science coursework. When girls step back from STEM interests in middle school, it can have longer term ramifications on the accessibility of advanced STEM classes in grades 9-12. So, how do you encourage a STEM-loving daughter to push forward at a time when they may be more inclined to step back?
Find a mentor to nurture their interests. Ideally, that mentor might be a female STEM teacher or someone who is a STEM career professional, but that’s not always possible. In my case, my 8th grade math teacher, Mr. Morita, overheard the other student’s boorish comments and pulled me aside to assure me that I was absolutely in the right place. In my daughter’s case, she found older high school girls excelling in STEM, and they took her under their wing. They even founded a support group to share ideas and vent when they came across sexist comments in STEM literature or in their own classes and clubs.
Encourage investigation and discovery. Scientists like to question the world around them; engineers like to take things apart. In short, great STEM students ask “Why?” a whole lot. You may not have all the answers, but encourage them to keep asking the questions. Explore the natural world at a local beach or park, visit museums, check out science delivery kits like Tinker Crate, or go to a local Makerspace. There are thousands of science project ideas online, and science TV shows ranging from Mythbusters to BBC Earth, from How It’s Made to Battlebots, can give great exposure as well. Just like many teachers encourage regular at-home reading for kids, encourage weekly science exploration as well. Keep in mind this doesn’t always have to be structured; free play is crucial to asking the big science questions as well.
Help them find their crew. Whether through a school-based club like Science Olympiad, Math League, or Robotics, or a community-based group like Girl Scouts (which has recently launched a focus on young women in STEM), help your daughter find a group with like-minded interests. There are even a few organizations, like Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, and EngineerGirl that cater specifically to girls in STEM. Once my daughter found out her high school robotics team had a strong representation of female team members, with older girls mentoring younger, she knew she had found her place. As a parent, I knew it too; she just lights up when she talks about robots these days.
Make the connection to STEM skills in every career. Even if your daughter does decide her interests lie in non-STEM careers, help her make the connection that strong STEM skills will serve her well in whatever career path she chooses. Just like writing fluency helps in most professions, having strong analytical and technical skills will help her not just in science or engineering, but in fields like business and education as well. Although I didn’t personally end up going into a STEM career, my strong STEM-based skill set has served me very well in every professional job I’ve ever had. Being able to ask investigative questions, conduct experiments, analyze data, and calculate projections are marketable skills in many fields. Even the term “STEM careers” doesn’t mean a few narrow career options made up of only people in white lab coats or stuck in front of their computers all day—there are hundreds of professions that fall under that very wide STEM umbrella.
So, in the end, did I go back to Math League? After several well-timed pep talks from my beloved math teacher, I stuck it out and became the leading scorer on the team. And when we went head-to-head in individual competition in the state MathCounts finals, I crushed the young man who questioned my mathematical abilities and my right to be there. That, young STEM girls, was my fairy tale ending.