Although young women tend to perform as well or better than their male peers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects, negative stereotyping can lead female students to feel insecure about their ability in science. Students’, and particularly girls’, interest in science tends to deteriorate rapidly after the age of 14, so school years are a critical time for nurturing their aspirations in STEM fields.
Inspiring a genuine enjoyment and appreciation of science during GCSEs will encourage female students to consider STEM subjects at A-Level, and ultimately make them more open to careers in science. In this post, we’ll discuss practical strategies which teachers can use to engage and enthuse female students while teaching science.
Inspiring a genuine enjoyment and appreciation of science during GCSEs will encourage female students to consider STEM subjects at A-Level, and ultimately make them more open to careers in science.
Students and staff in schools with a high uptake of STEM subjects by female students are less likely to mention or perceive a difference in difficulty in STEM qualifications compared to other subjects. A ‘can-do’ attitude helps students to feel able to take on the challenge of pursuing science A Levels. In contrast, female students at lower-performing schools tend to cite difficulty as the main reason for not pursuing STEM subjects.
A ‘can-do’ attitude helps students to feel able to take on the challenge of pursuing science A Levels.
STEM subjects also suffer from the perception that they are ‘for boys’, and female students are deterred by the prospect of classes or even careers where their environment will be male-dominated.
When choosing which subjects to pursue, young women tend to place more importance on the perceived relevance of the subjects to a bigger picture or greater good, while young men prioritise the relevance of subjects to applications or career ambitions.
Although careers in research and science are essential for solving pressing, human issues such as climate change and sustainable farming, STEM disciplines are often perceived as dispassionate and impersonal by school students, which is particularly off-putting for young women.
Link science with the ‘big picture’ by emphasising links between different topics, and relating subject matter to key ideas and applications
Science lessons tend to involve more closed questions (i.e. questions which have a brief, factual response), which can intimidate female students who are worried about giving an incorrect answer. In mixed classes, boys are overwhelmingly the first to respond to ‘hands up’ questions, which can mean that girls are left behind.
Technical language, including equations and scientific jargon, is common in STEM subjects, and can be alienating for less confident students, as students feel less able to ask questions when they can’t access the language used to discuss scientific topics. An emphasis on understanding underlying concepts and demystifying course content is key in engaging these pupils.
Make sure that underlying concepts are fully explained and understood before introducing equations
Observing girls and boys in science lessons reveals different approaches to practical work: while girls emphasise the importance of planning and understanding underlying concepts, boys are keener to move straight on to practical work. In mixed classes, this can lead to the polarisation of roles, with boys leading the practical work and girls taking on ‘scribe’ or note-taking roles.
Without access to positive female role models in science, it can be hard for female students to see a path for themselves in STEM fields, or even to understand why STEM subjects hold any interest for women. Women who are exposed to successful females in STEM fields are more likely to do well in STEM classes, feel a greater sense of belonging among their STEM classmates and colleagues, and are more likely to have pro-science career aspirations.
Women who are exposed to successful females in STEM fields are more likely to do well in STEM classes
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Marx and J. Roman. 2002. “Female Role Models: Protecting Women’s Math Test Performance.” Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin 28(9): 1183 -1194.
M.Hollins, P.Murphey et al. 2006 “Girls in the Physics Classroom: A Teacher’s Guide for Action”, Institute of Physics report