Exploring girls’ engagement in STEM activities

Schoolgirl In The Classroom Design And Development Of Robots

There are at least three reasons why it’s important to encourage youth in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math): (1) we need more young people pursuing STEM careers to meet the workforce demand; (2) whether or not someone chooses a career in STEM, they need to be science literate in today’s society so they can make informed decisions about issues like health care, food, the environment, and technology; and (3) STEM activities are fun and engaging!

But some groups, such as girls, youth of color, and youth from rural areas often find themselves marginalized and underrepresented in STEM learning opportunities and career pathways. GEMS (Girls Excelling in Math and Science), an international network of hands-on out-of-school time clubs, works to increase girls’ curiosity, interest, and persistence in STEM, and wanted to know more about how girls were experiencing the program. The National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) stepped in to study how GEMS was engaging girls in STEM activities—and to see what strategies could be shared with others trying to do the same.

“Research shows that youth who have positive early STEM experiences will be more likely to show growth in STEM interest and curiosity, valuing science as useful, confidence in their ability to do STEM, and desire for more STEM experiences,” said NIOST Director and Senior Research Scientist Georgia Hall, Ph.D. “But we need to know more about what constitutes a ‘positive experience.’ How do we facilitate activities that get youth actively involved and excited to learn more?”

With funding provided by the McElhattan Foundation, under the sponsorship of the Bridge Builders Community Foundations, NIOST recently completed a research study of two GEMS clubs in Venango County. Through observation and analysis, the NIOST researchers found that GEMS girls were actively involved in STEM projects in a hands-on way. Girls were engaged in a wide range of science behaviors such as exploring, experimenting, observing, discussing, using tools, and asking questions. They enjoyed the process of creating, innovating, and solving challenges. They were frequently amazed and joyful about what they were discovering. They were persistent in their activities and faced challenges by working together.

“These findings help us to think about strategies for keeping STEM learning strong for girls during their early experiences in informal STEM learning,” said NIOST Research Associate Kathryn A. Wheeler, Ed.D. “These strategies can be useful for others who seek to engage girls in STEM in a meaningful and effective way.”


NIOST’s recommendations include:

  1. Keep girls absorbed in STEM activities by ensuring that the activities are hands-on and truly challenging. If they are too easy, engagement and learning may be less.
  2. Engage girls directly in the scientific process of identifying a problem, researching it, hypothesizing, experimenting, collecting data, analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and then trying again. Explicitly name this process as “science.”
  3. Aim to get girls thinking beyond just following set procedures to produce a product or outcome. Try to design activities that encourage creativity so girls can explore, invent, and gain a deeper understanding of science concepts.
  4. Encourage girls to work together. If girls have questions, for example, instruct them to talk to each other to share resources and ideas before asking adults to help. This process will help foster confidence, collaboration, innovation, and persistence.
  5. Pay attention not only to what girls are doing and thinking, but how they are feeling. If girls aren’t showing that they are having fun doing a STEM activity, then it’s time to try a new approach or activity.
  6. Help girls make connections between what they are doing and what professional scientists do in their jobs, so girls start to view themselves as scientists-in-training.
  7. Give girls resources on how they can maintain their interest in STEM after the program has ended, including suggestions for online activities and out-of-school time programs, as well as in-school classes.
  8. Be a STEM role model for girls—one who is visibly intrigued by STEM questions and the scientific process of testing, problem-solving, and being persistent. And most important, have fun with STEM yourself!

Georgia Hall, Ph.D., is the director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) and Kathryn A. Wheeler, Ed.D., is a NIOST research associate. NIOST supports the healthy development of children, families, and communities, and advances the OST field through research, training, advocacy, and tools.