Why girls need more STEM role models

My robotics team is about half girls and half boys--gender equity has meant leading with intention

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat. Sign up for their newsletters at ckbe.at/newsletters.

My Advanced Placement computer science course is half girls and half boys. I coach an award-winning robotics team, Retro5ive, that is equally balanced between girls and boys, nearly all of whom are students of color.

Getting there requires combating gender norms and stereotypes every day. This fall, while conducting a two-week Tools and Build module with the robotics team, I held up a pop rivet gun and asked students what it was. Here’s a recap of an exchange between me, a boy who was learning about the team, and a few girls on the team.

Boy: “Well, do you know what the tool is?”

Me: “Of course. I’m the one who is teaching this to you.”

Boy: “Where’s the coach?”

Girls: “She’s the coach.”

Boy: “But you’re a woman.”

Me: “I know.”

Boy: “You’re the coach? I thought you might teach us the coding because I know you teach computer science. But you’re going to teach us how to build the robot?”

To me, this was an example of how much power educators have to shape what students perceive as normal. Gender stereotypes, a lack of role models, and unequal access to STEM courses and activities all play a role in keeping women and people of color out of fields like physics, computer science, and robotics. That’s why it’s so important for me to show my students that there are no limits to what they can achieve.

My most important strategy is to lead by example. At competitions, I’m usually the only woman at the coaches’ meetings. Here, my students see that although I may look or dress differently than the other coaches, I am treated with respect and taken seriously. The coaches understand that we are all there to support our students. That’s what matters, not my gender.

I also make sure our team includes young women as leaders. When we attend robotics competitions, I often see girls relegated to team roles in marketing or safety, while boys are more likely to occupy positions as lead builders or drive captains. On our robotics team, girls are equally likely to be in all of the same positions that boys are, and most of our team captains are girls.

In our daily activities, we work to create a place where all students feel comfortable exploring their interests and finding their roles while they build skills and gain confidence in their abilities. So if I see that more boys are jumping forward to claim leadership roles while girls are standing back and being “polite,” I will ask questions such as “What could you bring to this role?” or “How do you think your skills could help you in this role?” This gives girls a chance to use their voices without putting boys on the spot. It opens up a dialogue and gets all students thinking about what unique talents and skills they can contribute to the team.

Gender stereotypes, a lack of role models, and unequal access to STEM courses and activities all play a role in keeping women and people of color out of fields like physics, computer science, and robotics.

To help maintain this environment, we also require that all team members complete an equity, diversity, and inclusion training module from FIRST, a youth-serving nonprofit advancing STEM education. At the outset of the training, students often share how they have had to overcome other people’s biases. Most of our team members are Hispanic or Arabic. We also have members who are part of the LGBTQ+ community or who are on the autism spectrum. Each has their own lived experiences.

Upon completing the module, many students also share that the training has helped them uncover their own biases. While it can be uncomfortable to face internal biases we didn’t know we had, it helps us see we can all do more to create a comfortable environment for everyone.

In addition, all new team members receive a handbook at our first formal meeting, which we ask them to review with their parents carefully. The handbook clearly explains our expectations and details behaviors like discrimination, harassment, and bullying that won’t be tolerated.

It also outlines a progressive discipline program if students do not adhere to our expectations. We have had to remove only one student from the team because his idea of gender roles did not align with ours.

It was not a quick or easy decision. The student received first, second, and third warnings. We held meetings with him and his parents. Despite our best efforts to educate and give him room to grow, he continued to use derogatory and inappropriate language aimed at girls and the coaches. He failed to recognize physical boundaries and norms established by the school. When he was removed, the girls on the team expressed relief. The boys did, too.

In our district, located in a suburb of Detroit, 85% of students are economically disadvantaged. Our students appreciate that our STEM classes and extracurricular activities, such as our robotics team and our new drones team are safe and welcoming places for all.

They also appreciate that they get to learn STEM by doing STEM. Everything we do is hands-on, inquiry-based learning; it’s the only way I know how to teach. In my physical science classes, we use a curriculum called STEMscopes Science. It’s built on the research-based 5E lesson model, which I’ve used throughout my teaching career because it gets students talking and gives them opportunities to put what they learn into action.

This also helps students make real-world STEM connections. Learning becomes more relevant when they see that STEM isn’t just found within a classroom or after-school team. STEM extends into English language arts, social studies, and other classes — and into their homes, workplaces, and community. This makes STEM more accessible to all students from all backgrounds.

I hope that these experiences and my own example — I started in the medical field, I worked as a biomechanical engineer, and here I am teaching physical science, robotics, and AP computer science — offer new ideas about what’s possible.

While STEM occupations are still male-dominated, they are getting more diverse. In the meantime, norms are what we make them. If I have to be the only female coach among 40 teams at a robotics competition, then that’s what I’ll do.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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