There are a number of ways to promote the engagement of students in STEM. This starts with becoming aware of any unconscious bias or gender stereotyping. It is also possible to undertake a series of strategies to actively engage girls in STEM subjects.
Harvard University developed a test for unconscious bias called the Implicit Association Test. The test measures the reaction time taken to link a series of words or pictures. Holding unconscious bias means that people are slower to link words that they don’t believe should be partnered, such as ‘female’ and ‘engineer’.
If you choose to share this test with your colleagues, make sure that they understand that some level of unconscious bias is inevitable as a result of our social contexts. Holding an unconscious bias does not show evidence of conscious prejudice. Harvard University has provided some free and anonymous samples of the Implicit Association Test.
What does your classroom environment say about girls in STEM? If you are not consciously creating an environment of equality, you may be perpetuating the problem of gender bias.
Even something as simple as classroom decor has been found to have an impact on girls’ decision to pursue STEM subjects (Master, Cheryan & Meltzoff, 2016).
Look around your classroom and any virtual learning spaces you have developed for your students. Are there posters on the walls? Quotes from historical figures? Images of students and other STEM practitioners getting hands on with STEM? Now look again at these portrayals of gender and STEM. Are women and men equally represented? Are the images and quotes you’re selecting actively challenging gender stereotypes about STEM?
If you think you need to address your classroom environment, check out these sites for free posters:
There are a number of tools that teachers can use to promote a STEM-friendly classroom and actively challenge gender stereotyping and unconscious bias. These include language use, assessment, resources and conducting a school audit.
But it’s not just how our classrooms look, it’s also what happens within them. What we say, how we say it, who we call on to speak, and how we understand what students say all contribute to how we perpetuate or challenge gender stereotypes and unconscious bias. Use this checklist to consider how gender stereotyping and unconscious bias might look in your classroom. You can also use this observation tool from the UK’s Institute of Physics to have a colleague view your practice.
Using clear, objective assessment criteria is another way to limit the impact of gender stereotyping and unconscious bias on students. To investigate the extent to which they might be affecting your assessment, have students submit tasks or tests using a code rather than their name and grade them ‘blind’.
There are also opportunities to demonstrate or challenge gender stereotyping and unconscious bias through the resources we use with students. Review the books, videos, websites, apps and role models you feature in your class. Ensure you are presenting students with a view that accurately represents a diversity of STEM professionals.
Girls do better on science tests when their textbooks include images of female scientists (Good, Woodzicka & Wingfield).
It is important to have gender-balanced resources that feature:
an equal number of girls and boys studying STEM subjects
an equal number of women and men in STEM professional roles
an equal number of women and men in active or leadership roles
gender-neutral colours and design motifs.
Consider engaging students in a review of your classroom and its resources. Discuss your findings and create an action plan to improve it.
Is your school supporting girls to engage with STEM? A good way to approach this question is to start with the data. For each year level at your school, evaluate whether proportional numbers of girls are selecting STEM subjects and engaging with STEM activities. This data provides a good baseline to evaluate the success of changes in your school’s approach to gender equality.
Once you have some baseline data, look a little more deeply:
Check subject guides. Are STEM subjects described in a way that would appeal equally to girls and boys? (Read more about inspiring girls to pursue STEM.)
How do teachers across the school talk about STEM subjects and careers? Do they have gender stereotyped views of subjects and pathways?
What images are used in association with STEM around the school? Check noticeboards, school newsletters, brochures and the school website. How are girls and boys represented doing STEM? Who is actively engaged? Who is taking a leadership role? Are girls more likely to be represented engaging in one particular STEM subject than another?
Who speaks about STEM activities in year level or school assemblies? Are girls taking leadership roles?
Is there gender balance in invited speakers or facilitators?
Showcasing inventions by women in their enrolment campaign enabled Singapore University of Technology and Design to increase its intake of women from 15 to 45 per cent. See the 2012 campaign here.