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New STEM Study Focuses on Girls

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A study released this month by the Girl Scout Research Institute reveals that while 81 percent of girls are interested in pursuing a career in STEM, only 13 percent identify a STEM career as their first choice. Courtesy of the Girls Scouts of the USA 

A new study released by the Girl Scout Research Institute has found that even though the majority of girls have a high interest in STEM fields, very few of them identify a STEM career as their first choice. 

March 6, 2012—Almost three-quarters of teen girls in the United States are interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, says Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, a study released this month by the Girl Scout Research Institute, the research arm of the Girl Scouts of the USA, based in new York City. However, while 81 percent of those girls are interested in pursuing a career in STEM, only 13 percent identify a STEM career as their first choice.

Girls who are interested in STEM fields are drawn to the creative and hands-on aspects of the fields: 83 percent conduct hands-on science projects and 67 percent like to build things, the study found. The study also revealed that 85 percent of the girls interested in STEM fields like to solve problems and 80 percent ask—and try to answer—questions about how things work.

Considering the level of interest girls have in STEM fields, a question arises as to why more of them do not select these fields as their first choice for a career. The study revealed that often girls do not know enough about STEM careers and the opportunities available within the fields. Gender barriers also persist despite the tremendous advances that have occurred for women in the last century: the study found that half of the girls thought that a STEM career would not be a typical career path for a girl, and 57 percent said that if they were to pursue a STEM career they would have to work harder than males to be taken seriously.

The study also found that girls want to have a career that they love—a whopping 98 percent of the girls desire this—as well as a career that enables them to help people (90 percent) and to make a difference in the world (88 percent). “As opposed to the past stereotype that even girls who perform well academically are not interested in STEM (because it is a ‘boy thing’) our research demonstrates that interest among girls is there, it just needs to be primed,” the study notes. “If more girls learn that STEM careers can still achieve their goals to help and serve, more girls will choose STEM.”

According to Kathy J. Caldwell, P.E., F.ASCE, ASCE’s immediate past president and an adjunct lecturer at the University of Florida, who responded to written questions submitted by Civil Engineering online, the manner in which a message is presented has a huge impact on how it is received. As Caldwell said, the question posed to girls should not be, are you good in math and science? but rather, are you prepared to make the world a better place?

Caldwell noted that role models also play an important part in the solution; reaching out to the community and helping girls see successful women engineers is a crucial way to show girls that they can succeed as engineers, she said.

While the girls’ interest in STEM fields cuts across the three largest racial and ethnic groups studied (Caucasian, African-American, and Hispanic), the study did find some significant differences between the girls: African-American and Hispanic girls are less likely to know an adult who works in a STEM field and are less likely to receive encouragement from teachers and adults in their lives to pursue careers in STEM fields. Despite this, the vast majority of the girls believe that obstacles make them stronger and are motivated to prove wrong those who might question their capabilities. “These findings suggest that African American and Hispanic girls have strong internal assets such as confidence and the ability and desire to overcome obstacles, which appear to complement and support their high levels of interest in STEM,” the report says.

Eunices Simon-Alexander, A.M.ASCE, a project manager for Tishman Construction, an AECOM company, has served as a professional role model for the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital’s Annual “Encuentros with Chicas Latinas,” a three-day event focused on exposing girls to nontraditional career paths. For her, being a role model is particularly important because “there are so few female Hispanic engineering role models,” she wrote in response to written questions. “It wasn’t until I was already in college that I met [and] talked to female engineers, who served as professors.”

Demonstrating the creative and hands-on aspects of engineering is also crucial to engineering outreach to girls at the precollegiate level, Caldwell and Simon-Alexander point out. Caldwell would like to see the Girl Scouts go even further with their introduction of girls to STEM. “When I was a scout, I did wish we had something like the pinewood derby that my brothers did in the Boy Scouts,” Caldwell said. “I remember them designing the body of the car for aerodynamics, coming up with ways to reduce drag on the tires, where best to place the axles and [spending] hours honing weight and weight placement to lower the center of gravity and increase speed.”

“Perhaps the Girl Scouts could develop their own program to use math, science, physics and teamwork in a fun way—like a roller coaster design competition,” Caldwell said. “Or participate in already established programs, like theWest Point Bridge, Future City, or Building Big, and Design Squad activities.”

The study included both quantitative and qualitative research. In the former, a national sample of 852 girls, aged 14 to 17, answered an online questionnaire. The sample was created to represent the racial, ethnic, and geographic parameters of the U.S. population of teen girls. The sample of girls was split equally between those who did and those who did not identify themselves as being interested in STEM topics. For the latter, 140 girls aged 8 to 18 participated in focus groups that were conducted across the nation. Approximately half of the girls in the focus groups were Girl Scouts.



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