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Tips for Reaching Girls in STEM Classes

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Jennifer Rosato

Chair-Elect, Computer Science Teachers Association

I had no idea what my major should be in college, but knew that physical therapy was not right for me. Based on my chemistry placement scores, Sister Agnes Alich suggested a major in biochemistry — then a new major that combined both my strength in chemistry with my interest in biology. If not for her encouragement, I may not have started my career in science, engineering, technology and math (STEM). Several decades later, I’m still in STEM, even though my focus has switched to computer science and education. 

Teachers make an impact. We are powerful influencers in our students’ lives, and a word of encouragement can go a long way toward helping a young woman find their path in the field. With a little encouragement, we increase our belief that we can accomplish something and we are more likely to take on that task and continue through difficulty. However, as teachers, we are not doing enough to encourage girls in computer science. According to a report from Google and Gallup, only 26 percent of girls are told by a teacher they would be good at computer science, compared to 39 percent of boys.

Beyond simple encouragement

So, what makes for effective encouragement? The EngageCS-Edu website created by Google and the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) suggests that teachers can point out students good work, encourage a growth mindset and explicitly encourage students to pursue computing.

In a recent professional development webinar, I provided these suggestions to my fellow educators. Instead of saying “Good job,” focus on a particular concept or part of the process students excelled at or showed improvement in, such as, “The variable names you chose makes your code much easier to read!’’ 

When a difficult topic is introduced in class, frame it by telling students it may take several tries to master it, but that you believe they can do it. When encouraging the pursuit of computing, avoid saying, “we need more girls.” Rather, try connecting computing to a student’s passions and interests, such as how marine biologists need to process large amounts of data to discover patterns in ocean life.

Using strategies such as these will help create a classroom environment where students feel supported in pursuing an interest in computer science. Crowdsource some additional strategies with your fellow educators at your next local CSTA chapter meeting, or at the 2019 Annual Conference in July. 

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