By Lisa Lewis / March 08, 2020

Seven ways educators can encourage girls in STEM

As an elementary teacher and adjunct professor for Educational Goals and Practices, I straddle two worlds. My elementary classroom is usually a mixture of girls and boys from diverse backgrounds, while my college-age students are mostly young ladies ready to change the world through the teaching profession. While the environments within which I teach and my audiences have their contrasts, they share two key similarities: the students’ eagerness to learn and the need for STEM.

STEM is important for ALL of them. To my young students, STEM exposure to worlds not previously seen or imagined can foster concrete and intangible skills that can serve students well now and throughout their personal and professional lives. Plus, it’s an incredibly engaging and FUN way to learn! To the aspiring educators in front of me, sometimes it comes as a surprise how much of a role project-based learning and STEM can and should play in a successful classroom. Want to teach critical thinking? Collaboration? Communication? Responsibility? Perseverance? Innovation? We can do so through and with STEM. As a professor, I feel it’s almost a requirement that I remind them often of the importance of STEM for their students.
Lisa Lewis, (@LisaLew47786927)

Personal Experience Is the Best Teacher

I’m the only girl in a family with five boys. My educational experiences were different than my brothers’. Our parents taught my brothers to fix cars, play chess, get dirty, and work hard. They taught me to cook, sew, study hard to be a success in any female job, and stay clean because back then, only boys tinkered with mechanical things. My brothers attended Polytechnic High, and I attended the oldest all-girl public high school in the country.

As an adult, I expanded my experiences; I entered the nursing field and joined the US Army. I believe I joined to prove a point. I retired after 12 years of service but left as an Ordinance Officer. I spent my days playing with tanks and motors just for fun, and yes, I was the only female in my area at the time. I took with me transferable skills into my next phase of life. The military provided a wonderful opportunity for transitioning soldiers, called Career Switchers, and that is how I embarked on my ever-evolving pathway into education.

Lisa Lewis, (@LisaLew47786927)

When I began teaching, I was drawn back to my childhood and hands-on military training, looking for ways to expand experiences for my students and spark their passions. For example, I added some basic nursing into my lessons such as using a stethoscope or understanding how the brain and heart work. My first and second graders were responsive. It became clear that the students needed to be exposed to as many things as possible to see what would fit their desires. I kept adding more STEM-related elements, and their interests, and mine, grew.

In order to make sure I could offer as much to them as possible, I sought out professional development. I signed myself up for more trainings, such as The Tiger Woods STEM trainings for teachers offered in Washington, DC. I would find myself there four times a year for three years, long before STEM in school was a requirement.

I expect my students to always be learning, and by attending trainings and taking chances, I’m modeling that behavior. What does this mean for you if you’re at the beginning of hands-on STEM in your classroom? Or maybe you’re ready to do more? JUST START. And then learn. And do better (and maybe even more) next time. (This is the engineering design process in action!)

STEM Opens the Door of Opportunities

STEM is the starting place for so many good things. Exposure to concepts for sure. But, even more so, building curiosity and confidence. I want ALL my students to see themselves in STEM. I encourage all my students to follow their gift no matter the field. But for my girls, many are still trying to find footing to understand that they can be pilots, inventors, and mathematicians. So, how can I intentionally foster this footing?

    1. Showcase the work of women, diverse scientists, and STEM pioneers.
      I aspire to change the notion of what a STEM-minded professional should look like. “If they can see it, they can be it.” We talk about present-day and past examples. Recently, we read Hidden Figures, the true story of four black female mathematicians who helped NASA launch men into space. We also built rockets to launch at the conclusion so students could feel a bigger connection to the content. They became rocket scientists. I emphasized “knowing your trajectory,” not only with the rockets but also where students could go and want to go in the future.
    2. Be enthusiastic.
      Do whatever it takes to show representation and cultivate joy and interest. If it means wearing a tiara, I’m here for it. We know enthusiasm is contagious. And, sometimes, you just have to amp up that sparkle until they’re immersed and building their own connections. We go full STREAM ahead, often incorporating reading into our work and letting STEM spill into our other focus areas.
    3. Tap into purpose.
      With the help of Fairfield™ and their “We Make for Good” project, my students and I make dolls for the local hospital and a doctor’s office where one of my students is a patient. We make shot buddies to help the patients feel comforted during their procedures. While the STEM connection might seem shaky at first, think about the designing, measuring, and cutting of a pattern as well as the creating of a physical good by hand and with sewing machines. (And, doing all that with third graders!) This is STEM with a greater purpose. Making it purpose- or relationship-oriented can be an opening to get girls, in particular, to engage within a new task or build a new skill.
      Lisa Lewis, (@LisaLew47786927)
    4. Let them experiment.
      Put new opportunities and tools in their hands. One day, we’re making balsa gliders, and the next day, we’re building instruments with Makey Makey. Some students connect with one over the other, but the variety helps every student find connection points.
      Lisa Lewis, (@LisaLew47786927)
    5. Don’t be afraid of the tech or to try something new.
      We tell our students to try new things. And in STEM, there’s always something new or different to try. Or there’s a new element of tech to incorporate. Don’t be daunted! Keep an open mind when exploring new opportunities. Just because you’re not a programmer doesn’t mean you can’t do coding or robotics in your classroom. Learn alongside the students.

      I have my eye on Pitsco’s recently released coding solution, Smart Buddies™. They are intentionally designed to help students see themselves in STEM fields. Through programming and interactive storytelling, Smart Buddies encourage diversity awareness and foster much-needed SEL skills.
    6. Be passionate and find that funding.
      Funding will always be a frustrating challenge. It takes extra time and extra money to procure supplies, activities, and curriculum. It can be tiring. But I encourage you to keep trying. There are so many places to explore funding, including Pitsco’s monthly $350 grant.

      My passion has earned me the titles of District STEM Coordinator, 2014 Technology Teacher of the Year, and 2017 Merit Teacher of the Year. (It means a lot when your peers vote in your favor.) I have been awarded multiple grants for STEM in the classroom, and we now have a variety of opportunities in the classroom for my budding scientists.
      Lisa Lewis, (@LisaLew47786927)
    7. Be encouraged.
      I wish that I could say that I see an amazing number of girls in my STEM clubs and activities right now, but the opportunities are usually very male heavy. The girls are showing up and showing interest, and we must continue to nurture their abilities. I will continue to be enthusiastic about science so that my students will continue to lead the way for STEM and show that girls can make it happen if given the chance. The girls participating now are the examples our younger students need.

      My hope is that my small actions can impart a change of mind-set for my female students. And, yours will too. Your work matters.

Want to read a bit more about ways to encourage girls in STEM?
How to Get Young Girls Excited About a Career in STEM
8 Ways to Get More Girls Involved in STEM That Really Work

TOPICS: IN THE CLASSROOM, BEYOND THE CLASSROOM, IDEAS & INSPIRATION, Teacher Resources, STEM, Resources, STEM Units, Future Ready, 21st Century Skills, Hands-on Learning, STEAM, Workforce Development, Women in STEM

Lisa Lewis

Written by Lisa Lewis

Lisa Lewis is the gifted intellectual instructor at Lafayette Upper Elementary in Fredericksburg, VA, as well as the district STEM coordinator and an adjunct professor at the University of Mary Washington (UMW). In addition to her teaching roles, Lisa is also a Pathways to Excellence teacher mentor, a practicum facilitator for UMW, and a STEM instructor. She is passionate about all things STEM and believes children deserve opportunities to be exposed to the possibilities of life one idea at a time.