As the father of a 6-year-old daughter and the director of the Scottsdale-based kids coding academy CodaKid, I have a special interest in getting girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The paucity of women in the tech workforce is a fact, but there is much we can do to change that.
Here are six proven tips that can spark young girls’ early interest in STEM, and (we hope) reverse some of the trends when young women select college majors and career paths.
1. Start early. When my daughter started kindergarten, we witnessed a lot of discouragement and low self-esteem that stemmed from her early struggles in math. We jumped in, and my wife began a nightly ritual of math, robotics and STEM activities that made math fun and interesting for her.
Now almost nine months later, our daughter recently confided to us that she is really good at math, and her belief was confirmed by an excellent report card. The early intervention and hard work is paying off.
2. Turn STEM into STEAM. By adding the arts to STEM and making it STEAM, girls become a more receptive audience. At CodaKid, we’ve found that introducing digital drawing, design and animation into girls’ coding projects piques their interest and makes them want to learn more. In one of our courses, we teach students how to design and code their own digital 3D models for Minecraft, and this course has been enormously popular with girls. When we make the coding projects creative, girls are more willing to power through and learn more advanced concepts such as conditionals, loops and arrays.
3. Get personal. Having kids personalize their projects is an excellent way to increase their engagement. We encourage students to design and code their own websites about their interests and hobbies. Getting girls to create projects about their pets, favorite music or martial arts class is a surefire way to keep them interested.
4. Encourage experimentation. Handling tools, screwdrivers, circuits and robotic parts teaches girls that they can learn anything. In tech camps, girls design and learn how to build their own custom robots from the ground up.
Rather than using STEM projects that require girls to follow rigid directions, we recommend projects that are more free form, creative and experimental. Girls drive the process, test their assumptions, operate the computer, assemble the robot and run their code. This builds confidence and self-esteem.
5. Encourage a growth mindset. STEM projects typically involve problem-solving, and at times can be quite challenging. Having supportive mentors to cheer on young girls can be beneficial, but research shows some forms of praise are better than others.
Carol Dweck, the author of “Mindset” and a Stanford University professor of psychology who first described the terms “fixed” and “growth” mindset, says telling children they are smart encourages a fixed mindset that is often frustrated by failure. She found that praising hard work and effort cultivates a growth mindset that is more resilient to challenges.
In short, when students believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger. We have found these practices to be very helpful with our 6-year-old, who has developed a lot of confidence after a rough start in math.
6. Invest in STEM. Whether you subscribe to a kids coding website, purchase a STEM or STEAM kit from Amazon or enroll your daughter in a tech camp, you are investing in skills that can pay big dividends in your daughter’s life. An increasing number of STEM resources offer modules designed for young girls to help provide a firm foundation for these essential 21st century skills.