Girls in STEM: Challenges, Triumphs, and Misconceptions

By Amy Hamilton, Technology/Engineering Teacher with the Polk County School Board of Florida

I have been at Sleepy Hill for 24 years, so I am becoming a generation teacher. One of my students came in this year, a little 6th-grade girl I absolutely love. She said, “Ms. Hamilton? Did you ever make reindeer ornaments in class?” We had, ages ago. “Well, my mom did it with you.” 

She and her mom came in two weeks later for an open house and told me they put that reindeer ornament on their Christmas tree every year. She remembers making it, she remembers using the scroll saw, and she remembers sanding it. This is why exposing girls to STEM early, in middle school, is so important. They’re forming these ideas about themselves, and what they’re good at and not good at. Many are ruling out engineering when they could be great at it, especially girls. So that’s why I try to show so many different areas of STEM education. You never know what you’re going to do that will inspire some students to become extraordinary adults doing amazing things.

Girls in STEM: Why Are Girls Good at STEM?

Despite common misconceptions, girls are very good at STEM. They’re more patient, pay attention to the fine details, and are more interested in the quality of work they’re doing. They’re not afraid to ask questions, and that is a big thing when you are drafting and designing. You have to be meticulous; I see it every day with the girls. They’re not in a rush. I want to show them that their dreams are possible and that they may not be big enough. I want to show girls that they can do 3D CAD. They can assemble and build an electric vehicle. You don’t have to wait for someone else to do it for you. 

An important part of my class experience is for current students to interact with former students for tutoring or simply to tell their stories. They help me with teaching and provide a strong example of what can be possible in STEM education. Our school has a very large Hispanic population. I have a former student who is from Nicaragua originally, and she came in to speak to my class. She was talking, and I could see that the young Hispanic girls, especially, were leaning in. All of a sudden, someone like them is telling them that, yes, they can be an engineer. 

One student asked, “What if your parent doesn’t think you can?” and she responded, “My father didn’t think I could. And I did, and before he passed, he was so proud that he could tell everyone, ‘Look at my daughter, the chemical engineer!’” 

When she bought her house, she chose a fixer-upper and was able to do some of the work on it herself because of the skills she picked up in my class. She said, “If you want it bad enough, do it. Don’t listen to anybody else.” And we have to show these things to students, especially girls, to empower them and show them that, yeah, you can swing a hammer! Kids need to know that there’s a possibility. Girls need to know that there are other avenues they can go. STEM is a huge field, and many things are classified as “STEM” that people don’t even realize are STEM. 

Do you need help incorporating more STEM lessons into your curriculum? We can get you the tools and plans you need to get started. 

Girls in STEM: Getting Girls Interested

You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole. Finding the right topic and activity is crucial for building excitement and engagement among students, not just the girls. This year, I have been using Infento in class to build and test electric vehicles. The kits use a modular building system to teach practical skills and create an understanding of technology through hands-on projects. What has been very cool is that the girls have bought into it completely. They are looking at the directions and paying attention to precisely what they have to do and how they have to do it to make it work. They follow behind the boys and fix their mistakes. It has been a game-changer in building excitement around STEM in class. When I can do something faster or more easily than the students, the girls will say, “You make it look so easy. It’s so hard.” I just remind them that it’s not easy. I never said it was easy! I started doing this kind of stuff when I was 12 with my grandfather. I’ve been doing it for a very long time, and they will be too. 

Teaching Support and Collaboration for STEM Education

Infento kits have been very easy to use. When I have had minor issues, the support has been very good. They put me in touch with one of the teachers who teaches in the Ocala area. He has a lab with about eleven kits, and he uses it with high school kids. He helped me solve some problems that I didn’t even realize I would run into. The connection is a really cool thing. In Florida, they’ve closed all the Technology Educator Programs over the last few years because not enough students are entering. We desperately need more tech teachers. We need teachers to teach more than just classical science; we need the hands-on portion. What is proper tool safety? How do I maintain a lab? 

If my students ask me a question, and I don’t know, then I say, let’s figure it out. Let’s find out. Let’s explore. Teachers have to be willing to admit, hey, this isn’t my area. But I will find someone. We will figure it out. We will find the answer together. Giving them permission to ask for help is another valuable life skill that I hope they pick up in my class. The number one thing employers have difficulty with is teamwork, collaboration, and people who will take the lead and run with it. We have to show kids these things when we teach them. You set the tone.  You show them what’s possible. 

If you’re interested in bringing Infento kits to your classroom, give us a call!