How Do We Get More Girls Into STEM? Build Confidence (and Robots)

Diversity and Equity

How Do We Get More Girls Into STEM? Build Confidence (and Robots)

from The Robotics Education & Competition (REC) Foundation

By Dan Mantz     Sep 30, 2019

How Do We Get More Girls Into STEM? Build Confidence (and Robots)
Participants in VEX Robotics World Championship 2019

Women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce today but hold only a quarter of the science and engineering jobs. With careers of the future heavily concentrated in STEM fields, it’s unacceptable for women to be left out of the space. Not only do employers need to have the largest possible pool of qualified STEM workers to succeed, business outcomes improve with a diverse workforce. In fact, a recent study found that investors may even prefer companies with more women in the workforce.

The Robotics Education & Competition (REC) Foundation, organizer of the world’s largest robotics competition and leader in STEM education, is doing a careful examination of gender diversity. Although many organizations and companies are making strides toward solutions for this society-wide concern, improvements just aren’t coming fast enough. As education, technology and nonprofit leaders, we must adopt successful strategies, prioritize and move forward. For us, that means building upon our flagship diversity initiative: Girl Powered.

Participants in VEX Robotics World Championship 2019 (Source: REC Foundation)

Girls in STEM: the Landscape

The strategy seems simple: Include more female students in STEM subject areas like engineering and computer science, and positive changes will happen naturally over time, right? Unfortunately, the real story is a lot more complex, and there are a number of underlying issues preventing such a strategy from unfolding.

Cultural norms and pervasive beliefs remain a hindrance to improving diversity in the STEM workforce. For example, studies have shown that, when children are asked to draw a mathematician or scientist, they draw a man more than half the time. This may be due to stereotypes regarding ability, which have been proven untrue, and assumptions about cultural fit—the inaccurate idea that females just aren’t right for certain careers.

Additionally, there is a troubling confidence gap between girls and boys. A 2019 REC Foundation study with Tufts University comparing male and female students involved in the robotics program demonstrated that males are more confident than females in all areas except writing skills. Fortunately, we’ve found that participation in robotics competitions can boost confidence. So, we’ve made this one of the main goals of our Girl Powered initiative. At competitions, students experience the excitement of building robots and are able to test their problem-solving skills as they work toward successful implementation.

Another way to build confidence among girls is by increasing the visibility of successful women in STEM. We need more female STEM mentors and role models! Through the Girl Powered program, young girls can meet female STEM mentors at our workshops, hosted in community venues across the U.S. and around the world, including Google headquarters.

Dr. Njema Frazier, nuclear physicist for the Department of Energy, attended our annual VEX Robotics World Championship. “I love speaking to girls about my career path to show them it’s possible to succeed as a woman in a STEM field,” says Frazier. “Females are so underrepresented in the STEM space, yet we have such a unique perspective to add. So, it’s important for women, like myself—who have found and excelled in a STEM career they love—to take the time to continue to inspire the next wave of female STEM professionals.”

Girl Powered Infographic (Source: REC Foundation)

REC Foundation’s Girl Powered

The Girl Powered initiative provides tools and resources to students and mentors to promote female involvement in STEM and helps create an environment where students’ confidence and abilities can flourish. We’re already seeing the impact of our program. Since Girl Powered launched, female participation in VEX Robotics has increased steadily from 23 percent in 2016 to 37 percent in 2018.

The initiative offers grants, workshops and resources on a national level, but the program can also be targeted to fit a community’s specific needs. For example, a rural school district in West Texas was having trouble building a robotics program recently. The REC Foundation provided local grants and resources to help support participation in VEX competitions, with a special focus on Girl Powered initiatives. The program was a big success. In a matter of a few years, participation in the district’s Girl Powered events more than doubled—from 232 participants in 2016 to 518 participants in 2018.

Raul Torres, Math/STEM Teacher at Eastwood High School in El Paso is thrilled by the transformation of his district. “Girl Powered has given me and my team a pathway to share VEX Robotics and STEM, not only with students, but with teachers as well,” explains Torres. “Everyone who comes to our Girl Powered Workshop/Conference is amazed at all the cool stuff that can be done in STEM and Robotics.”

Eastwood High School's Girl Powered event in El Paso (Source: REC Foundation)

And the best part is, the initiative keeps growing. This month, in honor of International Day of the Girl—celebrated October 11—we’re providing our community with resources to host Girl Powered Workshops throughout the month of October to drive exposure and involvement.

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