Did you know that in the U.S., women make up only 25 percent of computer scientists and a mere 12 percent of the engineering workforce?*
Those are some pretty staggering numbers, but lots of recent research shows that through a combination of positive mentoring, hands-on opportunities like the four FIRST programs, and a focus on shifting cultural norms, these numbers can improve dramatically.
Mentoring is an important part of FTC, and, as it turns out, also an important aspect of getting girls to maintain their interest in STEM (which typically declines during middle school). According to Edutopia.org, "the majority of successful women credit their participation in some sort of mentorship for dramatically helping them reach their career goals."
While mentorship and confidence are important, it's also important for girls to have hands-on opportunities with STEM. Boys are raised from an early age to play with LEGOs and other engineering-type play sets, while girls often get pigeon-holed into the options available in any given store's "pink aisle." However, programs like Jr. FIRST LEGO League and FIRST LEGO League provide opportunities for hands-on experience and creative play to girls as young as six.
In this TEDX video, Debbie Sterling, inventor of the GoldieBlox play set, provides some interesting insights into the cultural norms that young girls face that steer them away from engineering at an early age:
It's important to change the culture and fight the biases that plague the STEM fields and old definitions of femininity. For example, while teachers often make great mentors, a recent National Science Foundation article points out that science and math teachers are too often biased towards the boys in their classrooms. Also, the findings from a study by Truechild.org echo Debbie Sterling's comments in the TEDx talk about gender expectations. The study points out that it's not just the biases in the "boy's club" that girls have to face, but also the seeming contradiction they face between their femininity and their smarts. The study states:
"Girls are caught in a 'double conformity' bind, in which they must opt out of femininity or opt out of STEM."Changing these biases and encouraging young women to pursue STEM isn't just about Title XI education equality, but about investing in our future. Engineers, scientists and mathematicians are solving the problems of tomorrow. However, with only one portion of the population represented in that process, the scope of these solutions will be limited.
I hope you'll take some time to look through some of the studies I've referenced here and then find a young woman to mentor and encourage in her pursuit of STEM, provide her with hands-on learning opportunities that put creativity and problem-solving to the test and challenge the biases around you that might limit her from pursuing a meaningful life and career.
Do you already do these things? Are you the coach of an all-girl FTC team? If so, I'd love to hear from you. Leave a comment below or e-mail your story to email@example.com.
*According to the National Science Foundation's Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/2013/digest/theme4.cfm