Girls in STEM

Walk into the average STEM workspace and you may find random scribbled notes, models and figures, the occasional pen missing a cap, and a variety of tools specific to STEM work. Beyond the desks, the hum of electronics, and an exorbitant amount of plaid button-downs, you’ll sense an air of excitement and passion. Looking amongst the sea of faces during light lunchroom banter and serious conference meetings, you’ll find the occasional female. In fact, if you were looking for equal representation of both sexes in STEM careers, you’d think not much has changed since the days of Susan B. Anthony and the Women’s Rights Movement. According to the US Department of Commerce, engineers are the second largest STEM occupational group, but only about one out of every five engineers is female.  In our own adolescent-filled classrooms across the country, you will find that many of our students, male and female alike hold the notion that STEM jobs are meant for men. How do we effectively introduce the amazing world of science, technology, engineering, and math to our girls? How can we make them realize they have what it takes to carve a niche, break the glass ceiling, and get involved in these pioneering professions? With these, and many other questions in mind, we eagerly delved into the Northrop Grumman Foundation Teacher’s Academy as Teacher Fellows in its second cohort.

Prior to beginning the externship portion of the year-long Academy we already had somewhat of an understanding regarding the lack of female representation in STEM. According to the 2013-14 Computing Research Association Taulbee report, almost 86% of recipients of bachelor’s degrees in Computer Engineering (CE) in the USA in 2014 were male. Although the total number of reported CE bachelor degrees earned increased by 14% from 2013 to 2014, the proportion of females receiving CE degrees during that time decreased (Zweben & Bizrot, 2015). With seven out of ten STEM jobs sitting in the computer sciences, females will be shut out. So while more people are earning STEM degrees, less of them are women. While there are many socio economic factors to consider in the cause of this occurrence, the common trend remains that women are not as exposed to these careers and they often believe (or are taught) that they do not have the innate toolset to thrive in STEM. Some studies claim a biological basis for differences in achievement and preference between males and females (Baron-Cohen 2003; Geary 1998; Kimura 1999). However, there is growing empirical evidence to support the hypothesis that observed gender differences are largely socially and culturally constructed and that few innate psychological differences in cognitive ability and preference exist between genders (Bussey & Bandura 1999; Hyde 2005; Hyde & Linn 2006; Spelke, 2005). In simpler terms, men are not biologically predisposed to achieve more and/or do better in STEM than their female counterparts.

 As youth, girls were traditionally associated with playing dress up with their dolls, while boys were thought of as interested in designing, constructing, and “getting their hands dirty.” This old paradigm often still persists. Research suggests that women’s interest in continuing to pursue careers in predominantly male fields like computer science and engineering is related to the level of self-confidence in their ability in those fields, and early opportunities to engage in computing and engineering design challenges can play a significant role in the development of this confidence (Gürer & Camp, 2002; Zeldin & Pajares, 2000). Therefore, the solution lies in us, as a society, shifting the paradigm and creating even more opportunities of equity for females in STEM. 

In conjunction with the global security company, Northrop Grumman, as a key component of the Northrop Grumman Foundation Teachers Academy, we completed a two week externship where we were given the opportunity to work alongside some of the industry’s best engineers and technologists. In these experiences, we gained first-hand insight into the critical workforce skills our students need to be competitive in STEM careers as well as how we could create enticing STEM environments in our classrooms.

In California, Rossy Guzman found that many of the junior engineers that were in their mid-twenties were inspired by early exposure to STEM. When asked what ignited their interest in engineering, they often answered, “When I was in high school I joined a STEM club” or “My teacher would give us problems where we had to find creative solutions.” This attests to the fact that we must hit the ground running, so to speak, when it comes to early childhood exposure to STEM, as early exposure can have a lasting effect. In terms of female representation, Rossy found that during her externship at the Palmdale Northrop Grumman facility, she only spoke with one female mechanical engineer. She was one of four female mechanical engineers in her graduating class. When discussing this lack of representation with her engineer mentor, he mentioned the need for more job applications from females, and he has worked in the Palmdale facility close to 25 years. However, he mentioned something important, specifically saying that when he has worked with female engineers, they do a great job. When asked to elaborate, he said he holds this belief because, “women pay close attention to details. In our field, a small detail can be the difference between a successful or failed project.” After her time in the externship, Rossy found that the greatest strengths in the STEM workplace include “collaboration, communication, and adaptability.”

When Erika Myers was an extern she asked her engineer mentor(s) what skills they found in the most successful engineers, collaboration and communication topped the list. Engineering managers reported that they were looking for engineers who could clearly express their ideas and work with other engineers. Further, every engineer she encountered agreed that being able to “think like an engineer” made for good engineers. Many reported being “okay” in math and science, but liked solving problems that helped people which is what made them pursue engineering as a career. With this information in mind, Erika translated insightful conversations into direct classroom application. To begin, she provided more opportunities for students to share their learning with others. She wanted to give students a chance to explain their process, as well as ask questions of others about their processes. She aimed to make this sharing occur in many different formats— sometimes peer-to-peer, while other times sharing was done with her school community and parents. This encouraged students to be thoughtful in the way they presented their learning process.

In addition, Erika, a STEM teacher in Downers Grove, Illinois, also wanted to frame her units with problem-based learning. After talking with engineers during her Northrop Grumman experience, many reported that female students often wanted to see the purpose behind their creation, and it was even more favorable if the solution helped people. For example, rather than presenting a project as “We are going to learn about circuits,” instead she learned to present the project as “We are going to create a guitar that can be played out of cardboard using Micro:bit.” An even better solution would be to say “We are going to make instructional videos for creating musical instruments with Micro:bit for students who have limited supplies.” Since females students tend to be interested in engineering fields where they see the direct impact their solutions can have, Ms. Myers has had positive results with her female students when she approaches them with a challenge based in the needs of others. This lends itself to introducing real world problems and having students come up with solutions that can have real impacts.

In New York City (NYC), STEM educator Candace Miller found that her students shared the same passion for real world applications in engineering. Collaborating with Radio Frequency and Systems Engineers in a New York City program opened her eyes to the feats of engineering all around the city. At every street intersection in NYC, you’ll find green boxes that contain technology that literally connects the city and keeps everything running smoothly. Unbeknownst to the average New Yorker, some of these engineers work 12-hour shifts to monitor, troubleshoot, and ensure that the city’s major services (think NYPD and NYFD) run efficiently. Candace and the team planned and held the annual Smart Cities Communication session at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering summer program for middle school students. During this event, the students were tasked with thinking of innovative ways to make the city run smoother.

Candace noted that some of the most creative ideas came from the female students who appreciated the direct impact their ideas could have on the daily lives of New Yorkers. While the male students had a tendency to come up with practical ideas that involved construction and pulverizing waste in the city, the female students distinctly thought how their ideas could improve the lives of the public. Adapting this real world application to the classroom facilitated a new sense of ownership and interest in STEM. Instead of viewing engineering as something that people do with machines, Candace found that her students, especially her girls, realized that engineering is what people do with machines, for others. Looking through the lens of how STEM and engineering has had an ever-changing effect on humanity in terms of medicine and other such practical applications has her female students more interested than ever! In fact, the US Dept. of Commerce found that women with STEM degrees are less likely than their male counterparts to work in a STEM occupation; they are more likely to work in education or healthcare. Exposing our students to how STEM lends itself to these commonly attractive fields for girls lets them realize their skills can go further than they imagine, and can help people in ways outside of what they currently know.

To echo this sentiment, Brooke Reynolds, a teacher in St. Johns, Florida found that the more we expose our students to engineering, the more they come to love it! Reflecting her classroom culture, her students don’t look at gender when they work in a group on a project, they consider the ideas each student comes up with. This helps her girls stand out because they are usually organized, detail-oriented, creative, and are oftentimes the vocal leaders of the group. In fact, the general consensus throughout each of our Northrop Grumman externships is the fact that collaboration and communicating ideas are essential aspects of the engineering process. Simply addressing the basic who, what, and how of STEM careers provides a basis of understanding the applied skills. She finds that “5th grade and middle school aged children are still filled with wonder and get excited about trying new things out. The more we expose them to what engineering is all about the more they come to love it and are not scared of it.”

Through the fellowship and externship Brooke has learned a lot about women in engineering and why they chose this path. One of the Liaison Engineers at Northrop Grumman located in St. Augustine, FL, oversees 5 male engineers ranging in age from 40-60 years old. She has been with Northrop Grumman for 14 years and moved up from working on the E-2D and F-5 plane engineering department to the liaison engineering department which oversees the other departments and fixes problems they can’t solve. She said “She feels that she chose this path because she “likes math and science and loved that engineering can help [her] apply the math and science into real life.”

While we were located in various cities across the country, working with different branches of the Northrop Grumman family, during our summer externships, we all shared in the same motivating learning experience with these passionate engineers. We gained knowledge regarding why they chose a STEM path and how their student experiences encouraged them to do so. To contradict the nerdy paradigm of geniuses working purely for the love of science, we’ve learned that many of these amazing people are engineers simply because they love seeing things that they imagined or drew on paper come to life in ways that improves lives. In addition, the general consensus is that Northrop Grumman is a company that focuses on making sure their employees of all sexes feels welcome and supported on their journeys to become better engineers, collaborators, innovators, and people. We took these experiences and applied them to our classrooms to have all of our students realize that they are and can be meaningful contributors to the amazing world of STEM and help form a STEM literate society. 

Special thanks to NSTA, Northrop Grumman and the Northrop Grumman Foundation, Stephanie Fitzsimmons, K-12 STEM Education Programs Manager at Northrop Grumman, the countless engineers that shared their space and time with us, and the incredible, affable NSTA Program Director of the Northrop Grumman Foundation Teachers Academy, Wendy Binder.

Applications are now being accepted for the fourth annual Northrop Grumman Foundation Teachers Academy. The program—designed specifically for middle school teachers (grades 5-8)—was established to help enhance teacher confidence and classroom excellence in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), while increasing teacher understanding about the skills needed for a scientifically literate workforce. This year the Academy, which is administered by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), will support 29 teachers located in school districts in select Northrop Grumman communities in the United States and Australia.

Rossy Guzman

About The Authors 

Rossy Guzman is a science teacher at The Palmdale Aerospace Academy in Palmdale, CA where she teaches 7th grade and 9th grade integrated science. Rossy has worked as a science teacher for nine years inspiring students to pursue careers in the STEM field. Rossy strives for ways to empower students of all backgrounds to succeed in her classes. The Northrop Grumman Foundation Teachers Academy has been a pivotal part in her quest to insure her students engage in workforce skills grounded in real-world applications. . In her spare time, she loves to read, drink green tea, and explore quaint towns. 

Candice Miller

Candace Miller is a middle school STEM and science teacher in Brooklyn, New York. Her favorite subjects to teach at Seth Low Intermediate School 96 are biology and engineering, and she hopes to inspire at least one kid to become an astronaut, as she’d love to travel in outer space herself! Until then, she plans on continuing to spread the importance of STEM in education. 

Erika Myers

Erika Myers is a lifelong learner who loves to share her passion for teaching students. She teaches middle school STEM in Downers Grove, Illinois. Among her favorite topics to teach are robotics, electronics and coding. She loves to watch her student come alive when engaged in projects in her class. She hopes to spark an interest in engineering in her students!

Brooke Reynolds

Brooke Reynolds is a 5th grade Math and Science teacher in Saint Johns, Florida. Her favorite subject is science and she loves to spark students’ interest with inquiry-based labs and STEM activities. She loves watching students learn something new, truly understand their discovery, and how it is related to STEM and Engineering.


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