For us to build an equitable, inclusive world, those numbers need to change -- diverse builders are needed to serve a diverse audience. However, outreach programs aimed at keeping college women interested in STEM are starting too late. Even in high school, statistics show that male students were more likely than their female peers to take math and science-based advanced level AP tests, and four times as many male students enrolled in Advanced Placement Computer Science A as women.
We've partnered with Verizon Innovative Learning--an initiative committed to providing free technology, free internet access and hands-on learning experiences--to investigate how to keep girls from getting left behind in the era of STEM.
A recent study of more than 6,000 girls and women conducted by Microsoft and KRC Research found that a variety of factors, including encouragement (or lack thereof) from parents and teachers, as well as external and internal pressure to get perfect grades, contributed to declining interest and participation of women in STEM fields as they progress through school.
Chelsie M. attended Neil Armstrong Middle School in Levittown, Pennsylvania, a Verizon Innovative Learning school, last year. Now a 14-year-old ninth grader, Chelsie described how she went from having little access to technology before Verizon came in, to being a whiz when using her tablet in class and at home. Eventually, she found that she loved coding and even got second place in a competition for a website she built with classmates. Part of the enjoyment of coding, she said, was collaborating with a group hand-picked by her technology teacher.
"Ms. Martesi put us with people you don't usually talk to and don't [hang out] with," she said. The recognition of their efforts was a nice bonus too: "That was very stunning, to get a second place medal."
Research has shown that girls tend to strive for perfection in academics, while boys are more likely to be encouraged to take risks that may lead to lower scores. For challenging subjects like math or advanced sciences, this can lead to female students opting out of STEM-related classes for the sake of their GPA. It's essential to teach girls to be imperfect to keep them in the classroom.
Chelsie was the recipient of an award last year that embodies this positive reinforcement.
"I struggled in math last year," she said. "I demonstrated a strong positive character even when facing challenges."
She called the persistent attention of her teachers, as well as her tech-assisted classroom, an "awesome experience."
Nakia W. is a 12-year-old seventh grader at Chilhowee Middle School, a Verizon Innovative Learning school in Benton, Tennessee. She pointed out the importance of mentorship in STEM subjects, saying that older students who volunteered for an after-school program she attended in elementary school inspired her to volunteer as well and pass on her technical skills.
"I love working with kids," she said of the students she helps with homework. "I always looked up to the middle and high schoolers."
Having an encouraging teacher who communicates to students about STEM translates to girls being about 21 points more interested in STEM than girls who don't have those teachers, the Microsoft study found. Nakia, who calls math her favorite subject, said that even at a young age, she was often compared to boys in math class.
"The teachers always brag on the boys for being so good at math and with the girls, they're like, 'you're so great, you're good at math for a girl.' ... There's not many girls in my class who could say that they didn't experience some of that. Most of them are like, 'I want to be good at math and not just good at math for a girl.,'" she said. "I've always wanted to work harder at it and beat the boys and the competition with division and multiplication tests and I've always been really competitive with that kind of stuff."
Nakia has ambitious plans for her post-classroom life, and she sees the training that she's receiving from the curriculum that Verizon brought to her school as essential preparation.
"I definitely want to go to college and I want to study business and have my own career and run my own company," she said. "I think it's very important because technology changes so quickly and I want to know at a young age how to use all this and it's important that I already have a head start on how to use all this technology."
Both Nakia and Chelsie were invited to the Global Citizen Festival in New York City in September 2018 to be recognized on stage for their personal achievements in STEM in a celebration of Verizon Innovative Learning. Verizon Innovative Learning provides free internet access, free technology and hands-on learning experiences to give under-resourced students the education they deserve. Since 2012, Verizon has committed a total of $400 million. They have helped more than a million students get free tech education and their goal is to help 2 million more by 2021. Visit verizoninnovativelearning.com to see how Verizon Innovative Learning is driving real improvements in academic performance and engagement.