Girls show higher aptitude than interest in STEM. Here’s how to get them engaged
Female students have given several reasons for not taking STEM classes at Mountain Crest High School in Utah. One comes when a course is predominantly male, says Alexia Wardell Jensen, career center coordinator at the school, which is part of the Cache County School District.
Because they are also worried about hazing or appearing weak or less intelligent, female students decide that taking a “more traditional route for females” is just less exhausting, Jensen says. “Fields that are based more in the sciences, engineering and math typically don’t require what society, perhaps especially here in Utah, would consider a feminine touch,” she says. “I have found that most of our young ladies who do choose to pursue their interest in STEM-related fields are already confident and don’t require the approval or validation of others.”
These problems, as many administrators know, are not unique to Mountain Crest High School or Utah. But a deeper dive into some of the details may surprise some administrators. In screenings of 116,000 high school seniors and juniors, female students have shown 10 times more aptitude than interest in careers in architecture and engineering, and four times more aptitude than interest in computer sciences and math careers. The gaps are even wider when it comes to aviation, installation, and maintenance, says Jeri Larsen, chief operating officer of YouScience, a career screener that’s designed to dig deep into a student’s aptitudes as well as their interests.
The numbers show that girls are not being engaged in subjects for which they have a strong aptitude. “There is not a talent gap, there is an exposure gap,” Larsen says. “Students are not being exposed to what’s outside their immediate circle, outside what family members do. They don’t know certain jobs exist and how much they get paid, what daily routines are, and the education they need.”
Educators should put more effort into exposing students to careers in middle school, when their aptitudes and interests are emerging. Educators, with tools like YouScience, can have girls play brain games to measure skills such as pattern recognition and spatial reasoning. “Educators can say here’s how your brain works, here are jobs that match,” Larsen says. “If a seventh-grader sees a world of 40 options that their brains might be really good at, they can start exploring and figure out what they like and don’t like.”
At Mountain Crest High School this year, Jensen has been going over aptitude test results in one-on-one sessions with each student. They discuss the top 10 suggested career paths and the corresponding courses offered at the school. She also counsels students, who in high school are “preoccupied” with their interests, that their interests will change over time.
Then, she invites female students who score highly in STEM-related fields to a SHE-TECH career exploration conference that features presentations by local businesses. “I help them understand that aptitudes and interests combined are a greater recipe for career satisfaction,” she says. “Statistics have shown that when people feel confident in what they do and feel like they have talent in their chosen profession, they are far more likely to thrive and excel than if they simply like the job.”
For instance, the career title “industrial organization” can sound sterile and cold to students. The profession, however, involves psychology and designing spaces to optimize the worker’s experience and boost production. Jensen also works with the school’s college counselor to help students identify scholarships that are related to their career aptitudes and interests. She also partners with community members to find volunteer and paid opportunities that will allow students to further explore potential careers.
“There is a time in life when children, no matter the gender, don’t care what others think. They will do what they want to do,” Jensen says. “I think if we were to start assessing and fostering aptitudes before high school we would see a huge influx in young women who would be more exposed and more confident in these fields.”
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