Survey suggests girls continue to lag in STEM

Disparities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics course-taking were apparent in a recent survey, but education stakeholders aware of such gaps believe subtle changes to a school environment or in communication strategies can help attract students who are often underrepresented in STEM subjects.

Michael Conn, senior vice president of research for the Student Research Foundation, headed an in-class survey across the U.S. last year in which 7,300 high school STEM students responded.

The survey is the basis of STEM Classroom to Career: Opportunities to Close the Gap, a report exploring implications and strategies for the classroom and out-of-school STEM programs.

“The goals of the research were primarily to inspire a dialogue among parents, educators, counselors and students on the students’ choice of a career pathways,” Conn said. “It’s also important to hear what students have to say, and to hear the voices of students to better align programs and services with their needs.”

Girls in STEM

Key findings

When asked whether students felt if STEM courses were relevant to their future careers, an equal percentage of boys and girls said their studies were either “very” or “extremely” important, which bodes well for a future workforce that increasingly demands a technical knowledge base, Conn said during a recent discussion sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity.

As for future career and college-going aspirations, males were more inclined to select at least one STEM option, he explained. Females, on the other hand, were more likely to choose a health-related career.

The survey showed an overall pattern among girls that is similar to other research, in that girls are overall less confident in their STEM skills and abilities, compared with boys.

“This relates to a lot of other research out there that shows even when females are achieving grades and completion of courses as highly as males are, sometimes there’s a differential in confidence,” Conn said. “The extent to which confidence plays into persistence, this becomes a really important issue.”

For instance, among students who reported taking Advanced Placement STEM courses, 56 percent of boys said they are confident in their skills and abilities, compared with 43 percent of girls taking the same course, suggesting that even when both sexes perform equally well in academic settings, girls still tend to feel less prepared to move forward, Conn noted.

The survey also found disparities among racial and ethnic groups.

helpdeskFifty-one percent of white students and 53 percent of historically underrepresented groups rated STEM courses as “very” or “extremely” important to future careers. It’s promising to see that both groups, in general, see the relevance of STEM coursetaking, Conn said.

“As we dig in deeper, though, and we look at completion of [seven or more] STEM courses by senior year, we see a difference that also shows up in other research,” Conn added.

Sixty-two percent of 12th-grade white girls surveyed had taken more than seven STEM classes, compared with 42 percent of underrepresented girls. Fifty-seven percent of white boys surveyed had completed similar coursework, compared with 43 percent of historically under-represented boys.

That said, “We know [course selection] is not totally a matter of personal choice because there’s other research by the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights which talks about the [limited] availability of coursework” in some high schools, Conn said.

Save the date: Author Sylvia Martinez will present the Jan. 26 session Girls & STEM: Leadership for Inclusion, Equity, and Action at LRP’s National Future of Education Technology Conference. This session is part of the Future of Ed Tech Administrator track at FETC. Full agenda details are available at www.fetc.org

Emily Ann Brown covers education technology and STEM education issues for LRP Publications.

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