"Girls. That's all we really need is girls."
So says GoldieBlox, a toy company, using a new riff on the classic Beastie Boys song.
"Girls: To build the spaceship. To code the new app. To grow up knowing that they can engineer that."
The now-viral commercial shows young girls that they don't just have to play with dolls, they can also build things – cool things. The company hopes to spark girls' interest in science, technology, engineering and math, fields known as STEM and traditionally dominated by men
Women accounted for just 24 percent of STEM professionals in 2009, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Commerce. While many are encouraged by a spike in students pursuing STEM majors in college, female students still account for just a small fraction of those degrees, the National Student Clearinghouse reports.
[Learn how to encourage women to consider STEM majors.]
Most experts agree that it is better to engage girls in STEM early, before social messages about their ability sink in, and high school is the last opportunity to hook girls on science before they start college.
Exactly how to engage them is less clear. Some think girls will be more interested in science if you focus on clean water initiatives instead of robots and video games.
That approach may be a little misguided, says Trish Millines Dziko, founder of the Technology Access Foundation. The nonprofit group partners with three school districts in the state of Washington and co-manages TAF Academy, a STEM school serving grades six through 12.
"We have a robotics course that we teach. Our goal is always 50 percent girls, sometimes we exceed that," she says. "They do like robotics. If you assume that they don't, then you're not going to get any girls."
Rather than gimmicks or marketing, Dziko, who spent 15 years as a developer and designer for tech companies such as Microsoft, says it is all about making a personal connection with students.
"It's all about how you get it to relate to what's going on in their world," she says.
By talking to girls and finding out what they are interested in, teachers can show students how their interests relate to STEM, she says.
Dziko recalled one specific high school student who was particularly disinterested in a game her group was developing over the course of a four-weekend program.
"I just asked her, 'What would you rather be doing?' And she said 'Well, I like poetry.' And I said, 'Do you know that in order to create these kinds of games, to the level that a professional does, there's a lot of writing and a lot of character development?" says Dziko. "That's when she kind of got it."
[See the Best STEM High Schools ranking.]
Michelle Shafer, an engineering teacher at Mount Notre Dame High School in Ohio, draws her students in by having them use their engineering course to solve a problem they feel passionate about.
For example, Shafer's students at the all-girls Catholic school were praying for an injured dog that needed an expensive wheelchair. Shafer found free plans for a doggie wheelchair through the University of Louisville and tasked her class with building one for the pup.
This year, her students will work with a nuclear engineer to troubleshoot issues with photovoltaic cells used by the Sisters of Notre Dame missionaries as an electricity source in rural Africa, she says.
Teaching teens how to use science and engineering to solve real-world problems helps them see past the STEM stereotypes.
"When they think 'engineering,' they think 'bridge.' They think 'airplane engine,'" she says. "If you're building, think about how many people are going across that bridge every day and how many people are depending on your design so they can get back and forth to work and to school."
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