Opening up Opportunities for Girls in STEM: The Critical Middle School Years

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As parents, we want all of our kids to have endless opportunities as they grow into tweens, teens and then adults. For those of us with daughters, the sad truth is that as women the opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (otherwise known as STEM) can seem limiting. It’s obvious that men dominate the industry as adults and the reality is that the industry is seeing more and more of a decline in women rather then an increase. In fact, The Observer reported that “After peaking in 1991 at 36 percent, the rate of women in computing roles has been in steady decline. Now, they hold only 25 percent of computing jobs.” And, unless we address the problem directly, it will only continue to decline.

So, how do we as parents do our part to open up opportunities for our daughters in STEM? The reality is that girls DO grow up with a curiosity about STEM activities, but learn culturally that boys and men dominate this. It just so happens that Middle School is a critical time in fostering their education and curiosity around STEM activities and programs. Girls Who Code agrees that Middle School is the perfect time to fix this issue, reporting that, “Tech jobs are among the fastest growing in the country, yet girls are being left behind. While interest in computer science ebbs over time, the biggest drop off happens between the ages of 13-17.”

To really get to the root of the issue and find local Boston, along with regional and national opportunities for your daughters to engage with STEM activities, we chatted with Cyndi Reitmeyer, Founder and Editor of BostonTechMom.

Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became involved in the STEM community for kids.

Over the past twenty years, I have worked as a marketing and business development professional for a number of Boston technology and healthcare startups. I continue to be inspired by people in the STEM fields who share their technical skills and vision to build innovative technologies, products, and services. I got involved in the STEM community for families when my young daughter showed an interest in technology and engineering several years ago. I wanted to find programs for her and it took me time, research, and some trial and error to find the best activities. I created BostonTechMom so that Massachusetts parents would have a go-to place to discover STEM programs and activities for their kids.

What are a few ways parents could get their daughter interested in robotics, or engineering if they dislike science and/or math?

There are more ways than ever for female students who might not love science or math to explore STEM and find something they really enjoy. If you take a look at today’s STEM offerings for middle school girls you will find an impressive array of options in robotics, engineering, science, entrepreneurship and even art (aka STEAM). My message to parents and students is find something that you really enjoy or are curious about and then see if there is a STEM-related activity that incorporates it.

Many girls love to play computer games, so taking a coding class that is based on computer games or teaches you to build a website is a great way to get coding skills. Another option is to join a robotics team and explore engineering, robotics, and solve problems within a team setting. You can even find STEM programming in the Girl Scouts. I have been delighted to see the Girl Scouts place a strong emphasis on STEM and develop specific curricula around STEM, including specific programs like space science (badges included!).

Another way to get involved in STEM is to participate in a girls-only program. For a student who might want to test out an after-school or summer STEM activity, this could be a great way to invite friends and attend together. Here are a few popular girls-only programs (some are nationwide and some local in Massachusetts):

●      Girls Who Code: coding clubs

●      Technovation Challenge: team technology challenge

●      Girl Scouts: STEM curriculum and badges

●      Empow Studios: Girls STEAM Club

●      Science Club for Girls: science programming

●      EXPLO: “Bioengineering for Girls”

●      Epiic Solutions: “Fempreneur”- entrepreneurship program

Check out my STEM Summer Camp list to find other girls-only programs.

Why is it so important to introduce Middle Schoolers, particularly girls to STEM activities outside of their usual science class at school?

It’s common knowledge that attitudes about STEM are formed early and if kids don’t get to explore, when the stakes are lower, at a young age, they are not able to build a foundation that’s based on confidence, curiosity and knowledge. Middle school is the perfect time to build on what you’ve learned in the classroom and explore and go deeper on personal interests through out-of-school programs. It’s a time to have fun exploring STEM and then bring what you’ve learned back into the classroom. I would continue to do this year-over-year during middle school and into high school because each touch-point and experience will help expand your knowledge and skills.

What are some strong female role models for women in technology that girls can look up to?

I love the quote that says, “You must see it to believe it!” That is so true when it comes to both girls and women in STEM. Our daughters need to see women in STEM roles and know that it’s not only possible but that technical careers are extremely rewarding and important to society. That’s why I love the Girls Who Code initiative which emphasizes mentorship. When you join a club, you are often instructed by women who work in technology. It’s a great opportunity for girls to learn from and get mentored by women who work in technology.

A few strong female role models that come to mind are:

●      Dr. Cynthia Breazeal: pioneer in the field of social robotics

●      Limor Fried, MIT hacker & engineer and founder of Adafruit, DIY electronics and kits

●      Ayah Bdeir, founder of littleBits, technology kits for kids

●      Debbie Sterling: founder of GoldieBlox, STEM toys and content

 

What can a parent do if there are no local groups/activities/workshops to get their child engaged in STEM locally?

There are many national organizations parents can contact if they want to bring a program to their community. For example, a few years ago, parents and students in my community took the initiative to start a FIRST robotics team at our high school. It was very much of a grassroots effort and the team is now well established and entering their third year of competition.

Here are links to some highly regarded national programs:

●      Girls Who Code

●      Technovation Challenge

●      Girl Scouts

●      FIRST Robotics

●      VEX Robotics Competitions

●      iD Tech Camps

●      Digital Media Academy

●      Camp Invention

●      Hour of Code: free online resource if you want to learn to code

●      Maker Camp: free website for getting DIY/hands-on project ideas

I think one of the best ways to get middle schools involved is by offering extra-curricular activities in aftercare programs, clubs, and PTO/PTA enrichment programs. In my experience, the instructors and/or parents who run these programs welcome new ideas. One of my daughter’s favorite after school programs in middle school was building a Rube Goldberg machine and demonstrating it at  MIT’s annual chain reaction event. For parents who want to get involved, I would suggest exploring Girls Who Code, Technovation Challenge, and FIRST Robotics because they are programs with well-established structure, curriculum and support.

We hope you enjoyed our chat with Cyndi and we’re thrilled with all of the great ideas that she was able to share - it really opens up so many opportunities for our daughters. Please share any other local or national groups and activities in the comments of this post.

And, if you are local to Boston, be sure to check out the Boston Museum of Science in November 2018 as they are celebrating Women and Girls in STEM month!


BostonTechMom is an online resource for parents who want to inspire their children to explore and learn about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). BostonTechMom’s mission is to encourage kids to explore STEM at a young age and help parents find programs that will excite and motivate their children. BostonTechMom's website identifies events, programs, and activities that expose children to technology in fun, engaging, and meaningful ways. The website features a searchable database of after-school programs and summer camps with a focus on computer programming, robotics, engineering, science, and other STEM subjects, as well as reviews of specific programs and guidance for parents.


PLEASE NOTE: The writers of this article are not medical professionals. The information in this column is not intended and should not be construed as providing medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information and provide a perspective to better understand the lives of themselves and their children. Articles on this website may be opinion based. The articles are not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional. If you do have health or safety concerns, please get in touch with a healthcare professional.