Creative projects and tapping a sense of purpose leads to girls’ engagement in STEM

March 14, 2019 |

She rotates the table of projects, rapt. There’s a critter bot creation which moves with its robotics component, a 3D printed structure – customized by a young elementary peer – that lights up and looks magical, and an architectural model of a panel-based pod, soon to be built life size on the playground. Julia* is fully engaged in these creations – even at only 7 years old – and several of them are made by her.  Already prolific in imagining and building nature-inspired critters and practically designed structures, she has connected her ideas with electricity, robotics, and engineering principles.

This is a real student at Acera.  She is passionate and prolific, and she combines her artistic, three dimensional eye and her imaginative constructs with technology (3D printing, software tools, and circuitry) for her light-up customized sculptures.  She goes through a whole design thinking process with her classmates, and then sets to work, measuring, clamping, and sawing the panels of the architectural pod model that she and her creativity morning elective group will build, full size, this spring for Acera’s adventure playground. She uses biophyllic inspired design to invent a critter, build it with natural materials, and then attach basic robotics to make it move.  

The result? Engagement, delight, a sense of purpose, and freedom with STEM tools that help her bring her ideas alive.  

All schools can engage girls thoughtfully and successfully in STEM topics early in their school trajectory! Educational guidance states that we must engage girls in STEM topics in elementary school; conventional wisdom is that if you don’t capture girls in STEM in elementary, they will not hatch STEM interests later.  According to a recent study by Microsoft, girls’ confidence in STEM drops as they approach high school, highlighting a need to showcase real world role models, increase encouragement in girls’ participation in STEM topics, and demonstrate a clear pathway for a career in STEM. Principles for any school include:  

  • Project-based approach, which has STEM components as part of a whole project.
  • Tapping students’ imaginations, creativity, and voice, enabling them to express ideas.
  • Links to something real – a thing they will build which can be used, or a need in the real world, or cutting edge technology that is exciting, current, and useful. There needs to be context for why a STEM topic matters as part of a broader whole picture that a young person will care about. Math is learned in an applied, relevant way.
  • Math fact fluency is built via games and puzzles rather than through timed math fact tests. Timed tests often induce anxiety and can create an identity of “I’m bad a math” when in fact, rapid-recall skill is completely different than mathematical problem solving, fluid reasoning, and conceptual thinking. Often, an early negative math self-concept for a second grader translates into a negative feeling about science and engineering as well in future years.

Engaging girls in STEM early turns into more women in STEM and leadership roles later. At Acera, we pilot test approaches that we then share broadly with public schools everywhere to make new pathways for successful, high engagement education to develop the next generation of scientists, innovators and leaders!