Parent Engagement: Key for Girls in STEM
From an interview with Linda Kekelis, PhD | October 26, 2017
Principal, Linda Kekelis Consulting
We need girls in tech. We need women in tech. We need women and underrepresented minorities across all areas of STEM. There are good reasons for this, reasons that benefit society, industry, the economy and international competitiveness.
But for me, one of the most persuasive is simply that girls and women deserve the freedom and opportunity offered by access to STEM fields.
In work I’ve been doing for over two decades, I’ve found that family engagement is a vital strategy for boosting girls’ participation in STEM learning and careers.
It Starts in Preschool
When my family was younger, our son was enrolled in a cooperative preschool. I helped out at the school one day a week. I was astonished to find that boys’ and girls’ learning experiences were so different even at that age.
The boys were encouraged to play with blocks. The girls got attention for what they were wearing and how they looked. While the resourceful boys learned principals of physics and engineering in their play with blocks, the pretty girls played with dolls and stuffed animals and boosted their social skills.
I was fortunate that the school allowed me to do a bit of social engineering. We set up a “pet hospital” with the stuffed animals and blocks. This new play space gave the girls a chance to build and the boys a chance to pretend play with the dolls and stuffed toys. And, the girls and boys played together. The girls became builders and the boys practiced caregiving, and I have never turned back from learning more about how to create a more balanced and equal environment for learning.
Do Girls Like STEM?
Like the girls in my son’s preschool, girls do enjoy STEM learning when they’re welcomed into the game. That welcome isn’t always forthcoming, however. Back in 1992, the American Association of University Women published a report on ways that schools shortchange girls. Some of their conclusions? Girls received less attention from classroom teachers. Sexual harassment of girls was increasing. Women and girls’ contributions were marginalized or ignored—girls had few role models to look up to.
Many of these issues continue today. Earlier this year, researchers from New York University found that by age six, girls are already likely to believe boys are smarter. Of course, the actual data doesn’t bear out this myth. In a national test of tech and engineering literacy administered by the federal government, for example, 45% of girls and 42% of boys scored proficient.
In my work with Techbridge Girls and STEM Next Opportunity Fund, two non-profits that focus on building greater equity in STEM fields by giving youth better learning opportunities, we’ve found that girls’ interest in tech is often shaped by the ways they see themselves. Girls have heard stereotypes about who is good at STEM (not girls, especially not girls of color). They’ve also had negative experiences when STEM programs aren’t geared to students like them. They suffer from a lack of positive role models in movies, social media and the real world.
We’ve also found that we can do something about this. This includes empowering parents to support girls’ interest in STEM.
Families Are Key
At Techbridge Girls, we conducted focus groups with girls and parents. In the student group, girls would say, “My parents will support me in anything I want to do.” But the parents weren’t specific in their support, and sometimes the girls wished their parents could give them more focused guidance.
In the parents’ group, we’d hear, “Oh, she’s only in middle school (or high school). It’s too early to push her into any particular career, and she’s really more of a people person, not an engineer type.”
In the hands-on projects these girls loved engineering! I remember a conversation with one father who was surprised to learn that his daughter wanted to learn more about auto mechanics. He routinely invited his son to help him out “under the hood” when he was working on the family car, but he hadn’t expected his daughter to be interested.
When parents are engaged in children’s learning—asking about their interests, inviting them to participate in “under the hood” learning, supporting their progress—we see a positive impact on many elements of academic achievement. These include having a greater sense of personal competence (“I can do this!”) and a greater sense of learning efficacy (“I can learn this!”).
Programs Are Making a Difference
STEM competitions for girls bring the challenge up a notch for girls who are ready to compete. Girls have had some notable successes in both girl-specific and general competitions—recently, an 11-year-old girl won a Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge for creating a device that could quickly and inexpensively detect lead compounds in water. (Do watch her inspiring video.) Yet, I am concerned that we design and support these competitions for the greater good so that all girls have equal opportunity to benefit.
Girl Scouts have introduced new badge categories that focus on STEM activities, in areas such as cybersecurity, digital arts, science, technology, innovation, financial literacy and the environment. This has the potential to reach millions of girls.
Reading lists give schools, educators and families opportunities to pass along the message that girls belong in STEM. For instance, Girls Who Code now has a partnership with Penguin publishing STEM-focused books geared toward girls.
Data from Girls Who Code is showing that girls who participate in such efforts are more interested in pursuing computer science careers. Impressively, 100% of alumnae from their Summer Immersion Program are majoring in, or planning to major in, computer science or engineering, and these youth name Girls Who Code as a major factor in their choice.
The ideas and models are there, but we have a long way to go in scaling up programs such as these—there just are not enough spaces for all interested girls. Many wait for long periods before they can get into a program. In some communities, especially in rural areas, there are no programs. Some girls are able to participate in weekend workshops which excite and inspire them, but don’t have a clear place to turn for continuing participation.
Ultimately, we aren’t giving girls the opportunities they need to follow college or career pathways in tech. More than 84% of computer science bachelor’s degrees are awarded to men and only 24% of the tech workforce is female. Girls have a huge distance to travel to get from, “This is a fun activity!” to “I’m ready to follow tech for college and career.”
This is one of the reasons building more involvement with families is so important.
Making Programs Family-Friendly
When we started up our work at Techbridge Girls, we heard, “Don’t expect much parent involvement.” But parents, guardians and other family members did participate. Here are some lessons we learned.
Expect parent participation
Make this possible by speaking with parents and listening to want they want and need to feel welcome. We talked with one father who had received a flyer, but didn’t get a sense that it was actually inviting him to the program. When he got a one-to-one phone call, he realized that his participation would be important to his daughter.
Lesson learned? Flyers mean different things to different people. An outreach strategy that works for you might not work for parents of the girls you want to reach.
Offer coaching to parents
Communities across the nation participate in the Expanding Your Horizons Network (EYHN). These are daylong conferences, often held on college campuses, where girls in 6th – 12th grade learn about STEM careers. They participate in exciting hands-on workshops led by female adult role models. EYHN programs are immensely popular, with spaces often filled just hours after registration opens.
At one of these events, I asked a middle school student, “How did you get here?”
“Mom magic,” she answered. Her mother found out about the program, lined up several of the girl’s friends, and got the group signed up as soon as the registration website opened.
What a treasure—to have a highly organized, engaged mom who is tech savvy enough to get the enrollments through. But a lot of girls we want to reach don’t have family members who know how to do these things. Many of these families do not have a computer at home.
This is why we can’t just hand out a resource list to parents. We need to offer coaching to help families plan and prepare for the application process, and assist them in completing the necessary online forms if they wish.
Ask parents to help you address challenges
Your perfect solution may not be families’ perfect solution. What works in one neighborhood might not work in another. Here’s a good example.
For one summer program, we were able to get funding for a transportation service to help girls get to and from the program. We were excited to have this practical, workable solution to the transportation challenges the girls often faced.
But…most families didn’t use the service.
Why? They were not comfortable having their children ride with a driver the family didn’t know.
We would have been more successful if we’d engaged the parents in thinking about solutions in the first place.
Affirm that all parents have valuable support to offer their daughters
Parents may have limited formal education. They may have little understanding of science and technology. These parents often feel that they are not able to offer meaningful support to their daughters’ interests in technology.
We must correct this misperception! Parents do not need to be STEM professionals to play an essential role in their children’s STEM learning. One father I spoke with was proud of his daughter’s achievements and happy that she enjoyed the program. However, he described himself as “not qualified” to support her academically. He had not completed higher education. He worked at a restaurant and spoke little English.
This father took time off work to bring his daughter to meetings and workshops. He asked her questions about what she was learning and doing. He joined in on some of her projects and learned along with her. These steps were the most important he could take. He affirmed that what his daughter was doing mattered, and that it had value to the family.
An ideal way to support parents is to check in with them personally during pick-up and drop-off at a program. Help them feel personally welcomed and acknowledged. Invite them to join in on group activities. Encourage them to participate in learning with their daughters.
Of course, for this to work, staff must be available to engage with parents. This means gaining support from funders for family engagement—not just lip service to the idea, but actual funding to support the staff.
For some further suggestions about building family engagement in STEM learning, check this case study from the Stem Next Opportunity Fund. My colleague Kara Sammet and I looked at some of the early wins and lessons learned in one community striving to build a stronger STEM ecosystem for youth.
Action Steps to Make a Difference
Educators & Families
- Bring on the toys and games. What are we telling girls with the activities we offer them? Do they have access to tool sets? Blocks and LEGOS? Games that teach science principles, such as Jenga or Tangrams? Computer coding games? Check out our list of toys to raise a rocket scientist.
- Monitor messages to girls. Pay less attention to appearance, more to achievement and ability.
- Monitor what girls learn from the media. Most techie heroes are guys, whether in the news, movies or social media. The movie Hidden Figures was a refreshing opportunity to offer strong, positive science role models for girls.
- Build equity in learning. Look for settings that have a good balance between boys and girls, or that focus specifically on girls’ learning. In situations where you have one or two girls and many boys, make an extra effort to make sure the girls stay engaged and are respected by the boys.
- Invite. A personal invitation from a teacher means a lot for students and parents alike. Reach out to invite girls and their families into STEM programs and activities.
- Coach. Coach parents who aren’t already practicing that “mom magic,” and help them make connections to support their daughters.
- Empower. Empower families with resources. Check out the lists at the National Center for Women & Information Technology here.
- Be a role model. If you’re a woman in STEM, put yourself in positions to serve as a role model. Become a Girl Scout leader, join FabFems and Million Women Mentors, volunteer for school or community programs involving girls in coding or other STEM activities. I think of positive female role models as the “secret sauce” for girls.
- Stand up for girls. If you’re a man in STEM, stand up and speak up about the importance of having more women in STEM. Become a mentor who encourages girls and helps boys learn respect for girls.
- Make it real. Support proposals that include specific, effective plans to build and sustain family engagement.
Linda Kekelis, PhD, is the founder and former CEO and Executive Director of Techbridge Girls. She is a consultant who works with partners to promote females’ participation in STEM. Family engagement is one of her passions and has been at the center of her research. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.