Lynda R. Wiest, Ph.D.
University of Nevada, Reno
Note: This sheet may be freely distributed with appropriate reference information intact and no alteration of content.
Below are recommended ways for parents and other caregivers to support and encourage females in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. Research has shown that parental behaviors and attitudes influence children's STEM performance, participation, and dispositions. (Note: Dispositions include attitudes, beliefs, feelings, etc.) Not only can negative and counterproductive beliefs and actions limit young women's potential and options in everyday life and careers, they can reduce the pool of STEM-capable, interested citizens who contribute to the advancement of society, including improved quality of life.
While the strategies that follow are especially relevant for supporting females in STEM, they also represent important approaches for males. They are numbered and lettered for easy reference but do not suggest a prioritized list.
Be sure to maintain these actions over time. In other words, start them at a young age and continue through high school and beyond. It is also important to avoid stereotypes regarding females and males in relation to STEM, such as implying that one gender is more naturally capable at STEM or STEM is more suitable for one gender.
Have your daughter do real thinking rather than memorizing procedures. Give different types of tasks, such as authentic, context-free, and hypothetical. Investigative tasks should allow your child to wrestle with material in an exploratory way, taking from minutes to weeks to arrive at a well-reasoned response. Resolving questions might involve experimenting with physical or computer models, researching information on the Internet or in libraries, and/or asking the opinions of experts in relevant fields. In essence, your daughter should be responsible for doing important thinking when working individually and collaboratively.
Choose questions and tasks that appear to be sufficiently engaging, which can differ among girls. Examples:
Take sufficient time for discussion after your daughter has explored questions and tasks. Your daughter should tell what she thinks something means or why it happens, what strategy might be used to approach a task and why, whether her solution method seems to be working (and why) while she is implementing it, and whether she thinks her conclusions for a task are reasonable and why. For example, have your daughter tell why or why not for decisions such as letter I above. She should be expected to explain and defend her thinking and conclusions and respond to questions posed about them. She should try to tell why she thinks something works. For example, if you take one number off the largest of three consecutive numbers and add it to the smallest, you have three identical numbers. This is why you can multiply the middle of three consecutive numbers by three to find their total. For the most part, your daughter should explain ideas, orally and/or in writing, rather than hearing someone else explain them to her. However, it is appropriate for parents who are knowledgeable about particular STEM content to explain and show it to daughters while also trying to engage them in thinking about the material.
Be sure tasks are pursued in a nonthreatening environment where your daughter feels intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally safe to take risks. Allow and encourage sufficient time to struggle with material since this is where real learning occurs. This includes homework. Give support, provide a quiet workspace with needed materials, and monitor homework completion. However, be careful not to be overly involved, which can give the impression that you perceive your daughter as needing help or not being sufficiently independent and thus cause her to have lower self-confidence about her competence in the subject matter. Encourage experimentation, some degree of calculated risk-taking, and creative efforts. This includes exploring computers with no agenda, in other words, simply "tinkering" with them to see how they work. You and your daughter should not shy away from mistakes and wrong answers but rather see them as rich opportunities to learn. Expect some disequilibrium and confusion to be part of the process. Help your daughter see how to accept that and find ways to move past it. Especially, if she gets stuck or frustrated, resist the temptation to "bail her out" by telling her how to think or proceed. Instead, give support and appropriate hints, or pose questions that do not give away too much but might help her think about things differently. General questions you can pose for most tasks is to ask your daughter to explain what problem she is trying to solve, what she has tried so far, why she thinks those methods didn't work, and what she might try next and why. If she is still stuck or can't remember specific information, try "scaffolding" her thinking. For example, if your daughter can't remember the answer to 8+5, you might say, "Can you first get from 8 to 10 by breaking off part of the 5? (yes, 2) What is left over from the 5? (3) Okay, so what is 10 plus 3? (13) Do you think that's the same answer as 8+5?" (You might have your daughter use dried beans or other objects to confirm.) Or if your daughter can't remember the formula for finding the area of a rectangle, you might first ask her to explain what area is. Next you might draw a rectangle on grid paper and ask how to find the number of square units inside. If your daughter counts them all, ask if she can think of a faster way to find the answer. Be sure to avoid finalizing all tasks by presenting the "right" way to do or think about something.
Ask your daughter to complete tasks in more than one way, if possible. For example, when she solves a math word problem and explains why she thinks it is correct, ask if she can find a different way to solve it (which might confirm or call into question her original answer). Have her brainstorm more than one scientific reason why things might work as they do, such as why a short person can typically change directions faster than a tall person when running, why a shower curtain blows inward when the shower is running, or why there are cracks in sidewalks. Ask your daughter to do some work mentally, as in figuring math in her head or imagining various science-related scenarios.
Permit your daughter to use a calculator to do carefully chosen explorations or to assist with tedious computations. In the former case, an example for a younger child who has not yet studied negative numbers is to ask if it is possible to "take"/subtract a larger number from a smaller number? Let her give her prediction (always with an explanation) and then have her test it with some examples on a calculator, recording the results. When she sees the answer to problems such as 4-5, 3-6, and 2-8, let her try to determine the "rule" for finding answers to these types of problems now that she sees they do yield valid answers. Another example is determining whether multiplication always "makes bigger" and division smaller. Exploration on a calculator should show that the answer to both of these is no. For problems involving large computations, the guideline is that calculators are appropriate, real-world tools to use when they do not replace the very thing a student is trying to learn. For example, it does not make sense to use a calculator to find the answer to double-digit subtraction problems if the focus of the lesson is to learn how to subtract two-digit numbers. An appropriate use of a calculator is to perform difficult or lengthy computations while solving word problems. In this case, the focus is learning how to solve word problems, where the most important and challenging part is determining what solution method to use.
Females tend to like using hands-on models (sketching drawings may also be helpful). However, variety is important and girls should use abstract and mental methods as well. Females also tend to like working collaboratively on tasks (including on the computer) and to do tasks that have a purpose, such as creating a spreadsheet that calculates pay for a dog-walking or babysitting business, using the Internet to research information for a specific project, or employing presentation or graphing software to prepare a class assignment. Again, some context-free and hypothetical activities should be included with more authentic tasks to provide a more varied experience. Please note that the learning preferences presented here do not imply biological differences in processing information. Rather, they are research-identified tendencies-across females as a group-that likely have sociocultural origins. Further, as indicated, girls must be expected to practice various approaches and, with proper support, they are fully capable of achieving the same STEM outcomes as males regardless of their chosen "means to an end."
Be sure tasks given are developmentally appropriate, meaning neither too easy nor too hard. For example, a younger child might be asked to think about ways to add two numbers less than ten that are two numbers apart, such as 6 and 8 or 3 and 5, for which she can use doubles to find the answer. (Examples: take 2 off of one number, add the doubles, and then add the 2 back on; double the numbers and subtract 2; double the number between the two.) As a science example, a younger child might be asked to consider why ice is bigger than the amount of water it came from or why pancakes are round.