5 Ways to Counter STEM Stereotypes in Children and Youth

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Contributed by Amanda Sullivan

Boys are better at math...

Scientists are “nerdy” or eccentric...

STEM professionals are naturally gifted at math and science...

Have you heard any statements like these before? Beginning at an early age, stereotypes like these have the power to influence children’s interest, confidence, and identification with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. A stereotype is a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea about a specific group. Stereotypes may relate to gender, sex, race, ethnicity, age, professions, hobbies, and more. Whether you believe a stereotype to be true or not, it can still have a profound impact on your performance and identification with STEM.

Research has shown that stereotypes contribute to achievement and opportunity gaps among racial, ethnic, gender, and cultural groups... and these stereotypes begin to form earlier than you may think! In a recently published study by Dr. Allison Master, Dr. Andrew Meltzoff, and Dr. Sapna Cheryan, the researchers found that stereotypes about girls’ interest in computer science and engineering are formed as early as age 6 and are evident across multiple ages from childhood through adolescence.

The good news is there are practical ways to begin countering STEM stereotypes with children and youth. Below are five simple strategies to get you started breaking and preventing stereotypes and promoting equity in the sciences:

  1. Start early with hands-on STEM: We know that stereotypes begin to form early, and we also know that children learn best through hands-on play and exploration. It is important to begin reaching all young children with hands-on opportunities to explore, engineer, build, and create to pique their curiosity about STEM from an early age.

  1. Support a growth mindset: Personal views about intelligence and failure can impact girls’ achievement and long-term persistence in rigorous STEM fields. Encouraging a “growth mindset” or the belief that intelligence is not fixed, but instead can change and grow incrementally through practice and hard work, can help counter the stereotype that some people are just “naturally” gifted at math and science. You can simplify this concept by telling young children the brain is like a muscle that can get stronger with more hard work and practice.

  1. Broaden stereotyped beliefs: When stereotypes come up in books, media, and in children’s play it can be easy to ignore them and move on without having a potentially difficult conversation. In these moments it is important to remember that silence = reinforcement. Take the time to talk to children about stereotypes they are exposed to and broaden or expand their stereotyped view with books, speakers, and real-world examples that contrast the stereotyped view they have formed.

  1. Check-in on your own messaging: Children and youth are always watching and listening to what the adults in their lives are saying and doing. It is important to think about the message you send with your own words and actions. For example, how do you react when you make a mistake or have trouble figuring something out? Do you model your own belief in a growth mindset and talk through your problem-solving strategies? How do you model your own curiosity and joy for the sciences? Checking in on your own behavior can help you send a positive message about STEM participation.

  1. Expose children to diverse STEM role-models: Exposing children to diverse STEM role models can help break stereotypes about who can and should pursue STEM. Role models can play a powerful role in inspiring children and youth to envision themselves in STEM careers. Want to find a role model for youth that you work with? Check out FabFems, an international database of women in STEM managed by the NGCP. The women in this database are all passionate about serving as role models and helping spark career interest and awareness. The IF/THEN® Collection from Lyda Hill Philanthropies is another useful resource. The IF/THEN® Collection is a free digital library with photos, videos, posters, activities, and other assets featuring diverse women STEM innovators — all available for educational and other non-commercial use. Learn more here: The IF/THEN® Initiative.

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Want to know more? Register for NGCP’s two upcoming webinars that will share research and practice-oriented tips for positively impacting youth by countering stereotypes:

  • October 13, 2022: Addressing STEM Stereotypes with Youth & Young Adults — Hear from guest speakers including Claudia Fracchiolla of the American Physical Society (APS) and Michelle Higgins of the University of Arizona.

  • October 20, 2022: Addressing STEM Stereotypes with Young Children — Hear from guest speakers including Dr. Allison Master of the University of Houston College of Education, Carmelo Piazza of the Brooklyn Preschool of Science, and Kim Collazo, a public-school educator & author.

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