Industrial engineer Paula Jensen vividly remembers the day her youngest daughter told her that building block toys were for boys, not girls.
Despite a nationwide push to encourage more women to enter the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, there remains a lag.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that technology professions will see the greatest growth from now to the year 2030. Yet girls are still not pursuing the STEM fields in adequate numbers. And it’s not because women can’t do it. Studies show that girls score just as high or higher in math and science as their male counterparts, yet there remains a confidence gap – girls tend to believe that boys are better at science and math regardless of test scores.
What can parents do to encourage their daughters to remain open to careers in STEM fields? Here are 10 tips from the female scientists, engineers and staff at SD Mines.
ONE. Give your daughter toys that build spatial learning, an important skill in engineering fields – toys like tinker kits, Legos and builder kits. Studies show that girls tend to have less spatial skills than boys because of the toys they are given as children, says Jensen. The good news is spatial skills are easily learned, so make sure your daughters are building and creating. When Jensen’s daughter told her building toys were for boys, she began to make a more conscious effort to give her toys that build spatial learning. Today, her daughter attends science-related camps and has a real interest in STEM.
TWO. Invite questions. Listen for those questions that show interest in the world, such as “Why is the sky blue?” and “What makes soda fizz?” And then answer the questions. If you don’t know, find out together with your daughter. Make it fun.
THREE. Find mentors for your daughters. Do you know a female engineer or doctor or scientist? Make sure your daughter knows them, too. If you don’t know any, find those examples in popular culture – books, television, movies, etc.
FOUR. Don’t be afraid to get involved with their schooling. For instance, if you know your child’s school has one extraordinary physics teacher, go to bat to make sure your daughter gets that teacher.
FIVE. Remind your daughter that it’s OK not to have an A in everything. Inventors and scientists learn by trial and error. Mistakes sometimes lead to great things.
SIX. Find the science in everyday play. Does your daughter like to dig in the dirt and discover new rocks? Make the connection that this is a type of science and Google some fun stories about what geologists do. While making supper or baking cookies, talk about how there’s a science behind the food cooking and yeast rising. If she figures out a solution to a problem, praise that she naturally used the scientific process, guessing and testing to figure it out. Attaching engineering and scientific terms to what they are already doing will help those labels continue to feel natural as they grow older, says Sarah Folsland with the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) center at SD Mines.
SEVEN. If your daughter is especially “girly,” make the science fit her spirit. A science princess is good at making beautiful glitter slime and uses chemistry to make it extra gooey and sparkly. Keep in mind that even parents can have biases of what a science experiment should look like. Identify those tendencies and get creative with your approach to make science and engineering appealing to your child’s interests.
EIGHT. Take advantage of classes and camps. For instance, the National Security Agency (NSA) offers a free cyber security camp for girls. Even if your daughter has no experience in programming, these kinds of experiences could open her eyes to a career in computer science and coding.
NINE. Get your daughter’s friends involved by creating a STEM club. Go on a nature hike and identify plants and birds. Look for science and engineering companies in your community and ask for a tour. Host a science-themed birthday party or conduct a science experiment in your kitchen when your daughter has friends visiting. There are tons of ideas online.
TEN. Be conscious of your own biases. You might not have fond memories of math and science classes, but be careful about how you describe your experiences and feelings about the subjects, says engineer Andrea Brickey, an associate professor of mining engineering and management at SD Mines. If your daughter is asking for help with her math or science homework and you don’t feel you can assist, reach out to the teacher and see if there are tutors or older students who can help. There are also some great resources online to help brush up on your skills. Search for “Khan Academy” or “Just Math Tutorials” and have some fun, she says.