"What do you want to be when you grow up?"
This question is a pretty standard entry point for adults when having a conversation with a young girl about her hopes and goals for the future. But think back to when you were her age. Did you really know the answer to this question?
For girls in school, especially those who might have an affinity for STEM subjects, this question can seem just as daunting--if not more so--than when you were their age. The opportunities that exist have grown exponentially with the rise of technology and the demand for innovative solutions in all aspects of life. Girls today might know they enjoy their science and math classes, but they may not have enough exposure to what is possible in those fields beyond academic subject areas. They may be enrolled in advanced mathematics, science, and/or technology classes and hold preconceived notions of "geekiness." This self-perception might impede them from declaring their love for those subjects or pursuing a career in a STEM field. Furthermore, it's possible that they have never even met someone working in a STEM field other than their own teachers and doctors.
So, instead of asking that common, open-ended career question as a platform for a meaningful discussion about life dreams, consider these five conversation starters to empower you to have a meaningful conversation with your student about the possibilities of a life in STEM.
1. STEM starts with your interests: What kinds of things do you enjoy doing?
What kind of people are the happiest with their careers? People who do what they love. Whether they're a video game designer, a pediatrician, or an astronomer, many women will share that their paths to and through STEM all began with their personal interests. Take Veronica Belmont, an Internet blogger and co-host of an Internet technology show called Tekzilla. She cites her love of video games during her childhood as the catalyst that motivated her to pursue her career; she started simply by writing video game reviews, and "liking the stuff she liked," which led to more and more opportunities in the tech world that aligned with her interests.
Talk to your student about the things she likes to do, as well as her innate characteristics and unique point of view. Encourage her to start by thinking about what her life could look like built around her interests. Maybe she can combine her love of art and science to create interactive exhibits about space; or maybe she can combine her love of science and travel to promote conservation of the environment. By aligning her individual interests to the world of STEM, she will be able to envision a broader range of opportunities for the future.
2. Shed the Noise: What are some stereotypes about STEM and how can you challenge them?
Students constantly hear messages from family, friends, teachers, and society in general that influence the decisions they make. For girls in particular, the messages about STEM can be confusing. You'll never use algebra after high school. Science is too hard. Girls aren't good at math. You can't make a living playing video games. You can't be creative and be a doctor.
No matter where this "noise" comes from, it's important to help girls see that shedding these messages is not about disregarding them completely, but rather, it's about paying attention to the insights, advice and messages that align with who they are and what they hope to be. Take Wanda Austin, president and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation, for example. She was often disregarded in school because of her gender and the color of her skin. As a black woman pursuing a math major, she was able to transform the messages she was receiving into messages of determination and focus, eventually becoming the President of the Aerospace Corporation.
Talk to girls about how they can shed the noise. Help them challenge stereotypes and messages of doubt and replace them with positive, inspiring stimuli. Having strong role models will help your student reshape her misconceptions of STEM fields and will instill in her the self-confidence to combat the noise she hears.
3. STEM is everywhere: How can you explore the possibilities of STEM in your daily life?
While in school, students are often exposed to a very narrow view of the STEM field. They might take a biology class, a chemistry class, and an array of math classes, but it can be hard for them to make connections between these classes and the real world. For example, they may not be aware that the same chemical interactions which occur in cooking/baking are authentic examples of the principle of heat exchange Ashley Hamilton Ross uses in her job as an environmental engineer at Chevron. Or that there is a need for Spanish-speaking biologists, like Milena Acosta, to teach school groups in the U.S. and abroad about fish at aquariums.
There are many resources that exist to give students exposure to STEM pathways they've never even heard of before. This exposure is key in demonstrating to students that there are real people, doing very real (and exciting!) things in the world of STEM far beyond traditional job descriptions. It's important to encourage girls to step out into the world and explore where STEM is present in their daily lives. Encourage them to seek out professionals and mentors in their local area who can give them not only advice about what it takes to be successful in a STEM field, but also exposure to specific jobs that are not readily apparent.
4. STEM can help people: How do you want to make a difference in the world?
According to a report from the Girls Scout Research Institute entitled "Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math," 90 percent of girls want to help people and make a difference in the world, yet only 13 percent of them identify a STEM career as a way to make that dream a reality. What accounts for this drastic disconnect?
These girls often don't know the stories of women like Jessica Matthews, chief executive officer of Uncharted Play, who designed and engineered power-generating soccer balls for children in third world countries; or Lorena Barron, a principal scientist at Amgen, who engineers proteins to make it easier to distribute vaccines and other medicine to those who need it.
It's these stories of social entrepreneurs using their knowledge and skills in STEM fields that demonstrate how much of an impact a career in STEM can have on the world. Brainstorm with your student ways she can change the world through STEM. Maybe she can: study animal science and work on saving an endangered species; engineer buildings to make cities structurally safer places to live; or develop video games that transform the way other students learn in school. The opportunities are endless and cover the whole gamut of interest areas, allowing every girl an opportunity in STEM.
5. Use what's available to you: How can your resources at school help you begin planning your way to a life in STEM?
Special interest clubs at school and in the community build on in-class learning and provide additional opportunities to build a network of mentors and peers who share similar interests. In addition, schools, colleges, and organizations across the country offer summer enrichment programs and other events focusing on STEM. The National Girls Collaborative Project, for example, has a directory of such organizations and programs. These activities have the added advantage for your student of giving her exposure to a college campus and/or an organization that supports her aspirations. Suggest that she talk with her teachers about these opportunities as well.
What do all these conversation starters have in common? They encourage your student to reflect on herself--her interests, strengths, and aspirations--and to take ownership of her learning. And they help her connect learning to life, by building a supportive network of teachers, community mentors, and role models, who will show how she can pursue a life in STEM.
Todd Bloom, Hobsons' chief academic officer, has more than 10 years of experience in education solutions management and consulting. Follow him on Twitter @Todd_Bloom.
Annie Mais, Roadtrip Nation's education director, has five years teaching experience at the secondary level. Annie writes and creates curricular content and resources for RoadtripNation.org programs while managing educator and student networks. Follow her on Twitter @anniemais.
For more information on Girls in STEM, check out the following articles: