In an effort to encourage girls’ interest in STEM, a high school in Massachusetts is giving students a chance to apply their skills at the school’s help desk. Students can join, regardless of their tech savviness, and learn on the job. The program's combination of strong, fun, female role models and hands-on learning has helped boost girls' confidence and excitement about tech.
The all-student run Help Desk is part of Burlington High School’s Student Technology Innovation and Integration course. If any student or teacher at Burlington has a tech issue, it’s a student who solves it for them. (In a nod to Apple's support services, the Help Desk's tagline is "A Student Run Genius Bar.") Last year the program had only one girl. This year, with a big push from the school’s instructional technology specialist, Jennifer Scheffer, there are four girls taking the course. And they’ve got some ideas about how to make the tech and science fields more approachable to females.
“It’s great you have this great coursework, but what’s the real-world application of these skills?” Scheffer asked a group of educators gathered at EduCon, a conference hosted by Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. “That’s where Help Desk comes in.”
The four female students involved with Help Desk take many other science and math classes, but they’ve found technology to be a passion when solving the real problems of their peers and teachers.
“Help Desk is not a real-world simulation,” said senior Cat Hoyt, “Help Desk is the real world.”
Hoyt is an avid soccer player, but when she got injured and couldn’t play, she joined a bunch of clubs to fill up her schedule. That’s how she met Scheffer and eventually signed up for the Help Desk class her senior year. She did not feel confident with technology when she started.
“I found I have the problem-solving skills and the ability to work with people, so I’ve done OK in Help Desk,” Hoyt said.
Even though Hoyt felt out of her depth, Scheffer structures the course to gradually let students take on more and harder challenges. Scheffer says girls often come in more interested in designing and making multimedia presentations, but she slowly pushes them to try fixing software bugs or tinkering with broken hardware.
And to let other students know about their services (fixing broken iPads, using new apps, help with a project), the female Help Desk crew introduced themselves in a self-produced "All the Techie Ladies" video with their own lyrics, set to Beyonce's "All the Single Ladies" hit.
THE POWER OF STEREOTYPES
“People don’t join [Help Desk] because of the negative stereotypes,” said senior Mira Mehdi. Many girls think STEM subjects are boring, for boys only, too hard for girls or that their peers will look down on them as weird for taking an interest.
“Girls think they shouldn’t be interested in STEM, but if they try it they often are,” Hoyt said. The problem, she points out, is that the negative stereotypes are enough to make girls pause, and they often get pulled into other interests in the meantime.
One of the biggest negative stereotypes these girls say they hear from friends is that STEM jobs are isolating. But they’ve found the opposite to be true. They collaborate all the time and work off each other's strengths.
“We’re all different; We all see and think differently," said Kristin Johnson, the one girl among the four who can code in three different programming languages. She says she fell in love with computers when she was very small, watching her uncle take apart and reassemble a computer. She found a female computer science teacher who mentored her and has stuck to her passion, even though she’s often the only girl in her computer science classes.
“They’re hard, but fun,” said Kelsey O’Brien of her STEM classes. “I feel like science is a puzzle.”
Kelsey is now working to build an app that would alert teachers if kids are off-task on their iPads. It's one of her long-term projects for Scheffer's class. She’s teaching herself the code, learning as she goes. These girls are clearly proud of the work they’ve done in Help Desk. They attribute their confidence to the encouragement they’ve received from Scheffer.
“A big part of getting girls engaged is who the teachers are,” O’Brien said. Most of the STEM teachers are men, so when a glamorous, fun woman like Scheffer came along, she helped these girls see that the stereotypes of nerdy, weird tech girls isn’t true. All four girls said solving tech problems is a creative process that they enjoy because they have to think critically and try multiple solutions.
And gradually they’ve come to see that enjoying tricky problems, coding or science doesn’t have to define them. Each girl has an active life outside school. They are athletes, musicians and active volunteers in their communities. They feel it's important to change the negative stereotypes around STEM to help girls see there’s no one model for someone who participates in these fields.
HOW TO ENGAGE GIRLS WITH STEM
One big thing all teachers can do is continue to encourage girls in STEM subjects and help them see that they can and do perform as well as boys. Teachers may also need to help girls develop tough skins because if they want to continue in these fields they’re likely to continue facing discrimination.
Several girls on the Help Desk team described experiencing bias when visiting colleges with the intention of applying to engineering or computer science programs. Subtle and overt slights are common in many STEM careers, so girls have to learn to stand up for themselves, advocate for their work and themselves, while also learning to ignore the unpleasantness.
“It’s really intimidating to even ask each other questions because [the boys are] always chiming in,” O'Brien said about Help Desk.
She and the other girls tend to work together or alone. Even though she recognizes the boys shouldn’t treat her and the other female students that way, O'Brien says she doesn’t expect them to act differently. She says if a teacher were to step in and tell the boys to behave differently, it would be perceived as more weakness. She’d rather just be confident herself so she doesn’t feel like she played into the stereotype.
Other ways to attract girls to STEM include naming and designing courses differently to attract a more diverse set of students. Course titles like “game design,” “app development” or “digital media communication” are much more likely to pique interest and provide a window into the coursework than generic computer science or programming titles.
Scheffer also thinks it’s important to have collaborative, peer-led learning opportunities like Makerspaces, where students can exist in a physical space that is comfortable for them and that fosters creativity. She insists this work should start with very young girls, long before eighth grade, when a lot of schools see a drop in girls’ STEM participation because of social pressure.
“Get the parents of elementary students in there learning and exploring together,” Scheffer said. “It’s OK if you don’t know how to do it. The kids will teach you.” When parents show a willingness to experiment and take on new challenges, it communicates a growth mindset to students. In fact, Scheffer sees it as her job to model failing fast and iterating for her students.
“If I don’t fail at least once a day, I feel it wasn’t a productive day for me,” Scheffer said.
Scheffer also recommends STEM-focused clubs, opportunities to recognize and celebrate the work of STEM students, hiring or highlighting female role models, letting girls compete and giving students leadership opportunities. Scheffer asked her Help Desk students to research Google Glass and present on how it could be used as an education tool.
“I get really excited and energized and the kids won’t admit it, but they think that’s cool,” Scheffer said. “There’s a lot I don’t know, so putting them in a leadership role [helps] and letting them just go with it.”
The gender gap in STEM education is well known and at least partially understood, so there are a lot of organizations out there that can support an innovative, energetic teacher who wants to take on the challenge of mentoring female students. Scheffer says groups like Engineer Girl, Nerd Girls, Technovation Challenge, Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code and the National Center for Women information Technology have great resources.
And when girls or other underrepresented groups discover they love STEM -- hold up those examples for the world to see because kids listen to other kids.