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The Journey to STEM Empowerment Starts Early

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stem-stem workforce-women of color-stem careers

Efforts to build the nation’s STEM workforce must grapple with the fact that nearly half of this potential workforce — women and girls — is going largely untapped.

Despite holding more than half of all undergraduate degrees, women are still vastly underrepresented among STEM degree holders, and only 14% are women of color. Females also remain proportionally under-represented in STEM careers, comprising 48% of the country’s total working population but just 27% of college-educated STEM workers. Disparities are even higher among women of color: minority women hold less than 10% of science and engineering jobs. Research points to enduring gender bias, internalized stereotype threat, and lack of female role models as persistent factors that discourage girls and women from pursuing STEM and STEM-related professions.

Studies show that gender differences in attitudes and interest in science are present by the end of the elementary grades. These early years therefore represent a crucial window not only for providing students with a solid foundation in STEM subjects, but also for cultivating an enthusiasm for STEM among girls. Yet, even with recent legislation that identifies STEM as integral to a well-rounded education, many students are still learning science by reading about it in a textbook or memorizing random facts rather than through fun, hands-on, engaging activities. Still others, particularly girls from underserved communities of color, continue to perceive science as inaccessible due to a lack of role models. The end result is that many potential female STEM students and professionals are weeded out before they begin.

A critical juncture for STEM empowerment

Girlstart intervenes at this critical juncture with opportunities for girls in grades 4-8 to explore a range of STEM disciplines and activities within a community of diverse role models and peers who can encourage their interest and persistence in the STEM pipeline. Grades 4-5 are a vital time to invest in equitable, accessible education, and in STEM in particular. Nonprofits can play a crucial role in this space. The 5th grade, for example, is the first administration of a standardized test in science (standardized tests in math are administered every year). Performance on these tests can have a profound impact on a child’s future with regard to taking advanced math and science courses in middle school, opening new doors and paths for college and career success.

As the opportunity gap continues to grow, out of school programs that equitably complement and expand school curriculums will be key to encouraging girls’ early engagement and academic success in STEM, as well as their future aspirations and persistence in STEM higher education and careers. We need more girl-centered programming incorporating research-backed methods to engage and empower all girls in STEM — with real-world connections to STEM careers and diverse role models to inspire girls.

Girlstart After School, Camp, and Community STEM programs in Texas, California, and Massachusetts build the fundamental skills and knowledge in STEM — as well as the confidence and interest in STEM — that girls need to pursue STEM courses, activities, majors, and careers. We also continually review and refresh the curriculum to remain responsive to the ever-changing learning standards against which girls are benchmarked and tested. By empowering more elementary-aged girls to continue STEM studies, we can address gender and racial inequities in STEM education and incubate a talented and more diverse STEM workforce.

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