My colleague and I walked into a room filled with a dozen fifth-grade girls snacking on pretzels and huddling around a LEGO robot they had named Kitty. Two of them were laughing about the goggles they had made out of robot wheels, while another small group crowded around a laptop to program wheel rotations. The rest attempted to drive Kitty through what looked like an obstacle course.
It was our first glimpse into life as mentors for the Girl Scouts of Western Washington's LEGO League, a competition that combines programming LEGO Mindstorms robots, team project planning, and creative problem solving to get kids excited about science and technology.
It was fun and a little nerdy—a lot like the work we do every day at Artefact. It was also nothing like the projects I remember doing in school. I was eager to get involved with girls in this age range because studies have shown that in elementary school, girls are just as interested in, and as good at, math and science as boys. Unfortunately, as they progress toward high school, their involvement and confidence in these subjects decrease dramatically.
As a woman working closely to STEM fields, I jumped at the opportunity to mentor a troop of girls. I hoped to inspire them to explore this field and cheer them when the going inevitably got rough. But even more, I wanted to see their early enthusiasm firsthand as part of my investigation into why female engagement in STEM is lacking and what we, as designers, can do about it.
Where STEM Fails Today
There are no easy solutions that will suddenly create gender equality in STEM. But we first need to figure out where efforts are falling short today.
The question surrounding many of the debates about girls in STEM seems to be, “How can we encourage girls to be more interested in STEM?” But what if we flip the script and ask instead, “How can we apply STEM to problems that are interesting to girls?”
Many studies suggest that women tend to value doing work that contributes to society and prefer careers with clear social purpose. Unfortunately, most STEM courses and programs today fail to make connections to these types of broader social impacts. Instead, they emphasize accomplishing specific technical feats. Goal: program your robot to move five spaces. Goal: build the strongest bridge out of these materials.
What if these programs shifted their focus be more impactful and less technical? Modifying the subject matter could not only attract more diversity to STEM, but also help ensure that future technologies are more empathetic to a wider range of human needs.
How do we go about helping policymakers, educators and the industry make connections between STEM and broader social impact? Here’s how design thinking, as a problem-solving approach, use to help us frame new solutions to decreasing the gap for women in STEM.
Empathize: Develop Empathy for Girls’ Experiences
A core tenant of design thinking is to develop a deep sense of empathy for the people at the heart of the problem you’re trying to solve. Field research, observations and contextual interviews can help us explore important questions like:
- How do girls’ beliefs, motivations and aspirations change as they grow and why?
- What do girls’ daily routines look like, and how might they impact participation in STEM?
- What social, cultural, economic, and emotional undercurrents are at play?
Considering these factors helps us figure out what types of solutions to design and increases the likelihood that what we design will be successful.
Contextualize: Incorporate the Big Picture
Design thinking also encourages us to consider the broader context of the problem—to zoom out and gain a different perspective. By doing this, we can dive into the complicated social and cultural roles that different family members, teachers, coaches, classmates, public figures, marketing campaigns, public policies, and institutions play. To get a better idea of the context, we ask questions such as:
- Who serves as an ‘influencer,’ and who serves as a ‘barrier’?
- How might we address changing their perspectives or behaviors, while we simultaneously design solutions that specifically address girls?
Rethink: Asking Disruptive Questions
When we approach a problem through the lens of design thinking, we try to ask new questions that push the boundaries on the topic in an effort to consider scenarios and solutions we may not have thought of before. The following questions can help us go beyond narrow-minded approaches on getting girls more interested in STEM:
- How might we help girls have more confidence in their STEM abilities?
- How might we encourage more industries to consider the long-term implications of gender messaging?
- How might we involve more males in gender inequality discussions?
Iterate: Fail Early and Try Again
An ongoing cycle of designing, prototyping and testing is essential to design thinking—and none of these should happen without input from the people at the heart of the problem. Designers looking to close the STEM gap should always involve girls, women in STEM fields, parents, teachers, and other relevant participants in brainstorming sessions and interactive workshops to envision new solutions with the people who would actually be using them. Then, using techniques like sketching, storyboarding, and paper prototyping, we can quickly test our assumptions, gather feedback, and revise our approaches—or scrap them entirely. This kind of low-fidelity prototyping allows us to fail early with minimal costs, learn from it and begin again from a new and more informed mindset.
Programs Leading the Way
Colleges that offer humanitarian engineering courses, and organizations like Engineers Without Borders chapters, are on the right track. These programs focus on challenges like creating solutions for low-income communities without access to clean water and medical supplies, and they’re seeing increased female participation.
So, what can we do to make STEM more appealing to girls as they move into middle and high school, when participation is likely to decline? Similar to LEGO League, Techbridge and Project H are steps in the right direction. Techbridge’s outreach programs give girls the opportunity to learn about STEM through hands-on projects that are often rooted in philanthropy. Project H’s youth-led public design projects are rooted in science, technology, engineering, arts and math, helping kids connect what they learn in school to what they can do in the real world. Their programs combine hands-on tinkering, design guidance and inspiring female leaders to empower girls to build solutions and address problems within their communities.
Blending Empathy with Technicality
Increasing the appeal of STEM fields to women is key as technology becomes more and more integrated into our lives. By asking the questions we have outlined above, we can design programs and products that not only appeal to girls but empower them to solve real-world problems, rather than impede them with barriers of technical knowledge. After all, the more diverse perspectives we can incorporate into building future technologies and scientific advancements, the more meaningful and thoughtful experiences we can all enjoy as a society.