Role Models for Girls in STEM

Contributed by Kristin Pederson and Rita Karl of Twin Cities PBS, STEM Media and Education Unit

If girls can see it, they can be it.SciGirls Logo

Catchy, right? But it’s more than a clever turn of phrase. The concept of role modeling, deeply rooted in over two decades of rigorous research, forms the foundation of SciGirls.

SciGirls is a national PBS program which combines an Emmy Award-winning series, multiple websites, gender equitable hands-on activities and professional development workshops to encourage girls, their families and educators around STEM studies and career paths. Across these multiple platforms, SciGirls employs role modeling in relatable and empowering ways to change the ways girls think about STEM… and themselves: 

  • SciGirls being mentoredOn-air: Each thirty-minute SciGirls episodes features real girls—not actors—teaming up with a female science or technology professional to explore an authentic question, address a community challenge or simply learn more about their world. Through these STEM adventures, girls meet everyone from engineers and chemists to dolphin experts and puppet masters, and discover how STEM surrounds us every day!

  • Online: SciGirls PBSKids.org website is bursting with STEM role model videos, introducing girls to female STEM pioneers like bicycle engineers, welders, firefighters, and more. The SciGirls CONNECT website provides educators and families with role modeling best practices resources, and connects users with the national FabFems network of female STEM professionals.

  • On-the ground: At more than 160 partner organizations nationwide, informal educators receive gender equity training, including the use of role models. Several STEM companies have also received role model training for their working professionals - who are then connected to girl-serving STEM programs. These skills have been shared with 60,000 children in 36 states.

It is important to note that SciGirls’ commitment to role modeling is far more than a “flavor of the month” approach. This 12-year-old program is based on research that clearly demonstrates how connecting middle school students to STEM activities and role models is important to the development of STEM interest and career expectations. Young girls are rarely exposed to female role models in STEM fields, and this compounds stereotypes that these professions are typically male, white, and middle-class. Additionally, in some STEM fields (such as physics, mechanical and computer engineering) men significantly outnumber women, adding to the broader socio-historical perception of STEM fields as predominantly masculine. Consequently, individuals who do not fit into the categories find it more difficult to identify fully with these fields and often leave the traditional (or "legitimate") path to STEM careers. Smiling SciGirls

Thorough both research and our own third-party evaluations, the SciGirls team has also seen that role models are critical for minority students. Even those who do well in STEM often struggle to identify with STEM fields because they cannot find connections to their lives. An inability to identify with STEM is often compounded by the lack of personal relationships students have with STEM professionals in school classrooms. Several studies show that role models improve students’ STEM identity by increasing attitude change, interest, and self-efficacy in STEM fields.

SciGirls is working to put this role model research into action in several ways. In addition to creating media and hands-on outreach programming, Twin Cities PBS (TPT) and its partners currently have a research study underway that is addressing the impact of role models and role model videos on girls’ STEM identity. The study will examine girls’ personal experiences with equitable strategies embedded into classroom STEM content and complementary mentoring experiences, both live and video-based. It will explore how these experiences contribute to girls’ STEM-related identity construction against gender-based stereotypes. It will also determine to what extent girls’ exposure to female STEM role models impacts their career and technical education studies and STEM career aspirations.Smiling SciGirls with Mentors

Additionally, because it is clear that minority girls, particularly those of low socioeconomic status, need STEM professional role models who look like them and share their culture, SciGirls is integrating culturally competent role modeling into our upcoming season. With the goal of engaging Latina students and families in STEM, TPT is creating six new half-hour episodes of SciGirls for PBS – produced in Spanish! Episodes will feature bilingual girls and Latina STEM professional role models, and will air nationally on PBS. Educational outreach initiatives which include role modeling are already reaching Spanish-speaking children, educators, and families nationwide, and episodes will air in late 2017.

With generous National Science Foundation and corporate support, SciGirls has showcased gender equitable role modeling in ways that engage our youth audience of digital native and prepared over 100 adults to act as STEM role models. Together with great partners like the National Girls Collaborative Project, we look forward to inspiring and equipping the next generation of STEM superstars…and future role models!