Have you heard a story like this before: My daughter used to enjoy math and science when she was in elementary school. She’s always been strong in those subjects. But now that she’s going into 7th grade, it’s no longer “cool.” She’s actually afraid that her classmates won’t like her anymore if they find out how talented she is. Her computer science teacher called to tell me that she doesn’t want to take the honors programming class next year, even though she was the top student in his class last year. How do I make her understand that she should pursue her natural talents regardless of what her so-called friends think?
There is no easy or single answer to this difficult parenting problem. The factors that motivate a child are often as unique as that child. But in our experience at IMACS, one factor seems to be pretty consistent across the board: In this age range, parental influence starts to wane, sometimes rapidly, and outside parties such as friends and teachers gain in influential power. If you don’t have buy-in from a tween or teenager on a particular idea that involves her, then you’re probably not going to get anywhere. In fact, there’s a good chance that the reaction you get is the exact opposite of the one you want. Such is the process of growing up. It just seems more painful to now find yourself on the parental side of this equation.
There are two broad pieces of advice that we can offer based on the anecdotal evidence we see and hear with our female students. One is to get your daughter involved in one of the growing number of programs that promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The earlier you get girls excited about STEM, the better. Studies have shown that if girls are not interested by middle school, it’s almost impossible to get them to pursue any of these fields in college or as a career. Getting your daughter involved in math and science enrichment during elementary school is a great first step. Whatever the age, look for a program with a healthy proportion of female participants, or even a girls-only program if available in your area. When a girl is surrounded by other girls who are also interested in these subjects, then being a “math and science girl” doesn’t seem so “out there,” and the stereotype that STEM is for boys is less likely to be reinforced. Your daughter might also feel more confident and willing to take more risks in learning if she’s not surrounded by boys.
The other piece of advice is to find a trusted adult female who works in a STEM field to mentor your daughter. It’s important for girls to have STEM-minded peers, but they also need successful female role models to look to and learn from. We mean no disrespect to the many excellent male mentors out there, but there is no doubting the power of “seeing is believing” when it comes to convincing girls that they can have a successful future in STEM. And while it’s inspiring to read interviews with Google’s Marissa Mayer or actress Danica McKellar, building a positive one-to-one mentoring relationship with an accessible adult has much more impact. Your daughter can receive regular guidance that address the specifics of her situation (e.g., career options, scholarship applications, college admissions). Plus, it will be coming from an adult other than Mom or Dad who, at this stage of adolescence, have zero credibility.
Below, we’ve compiled a non-exhaustive list of organizations, programs and resources for encouraging and motivating talented young girls to get and stay engaged with STEM. Many have organized mentor matching services. If your daughter is approaching high school, we’ve also included two organizations that focus exclusively on high school girls. We encourage you to explore these links and to inquire further in your local communities for similar opportunities. Your daughters are counting on you, whether they know it or not.
Organizations that Encourage and Support Young Girls in STEM
National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP) – The NGCP brings together US organizations that focus on motivating girls to pursue careers in STEM fields. The program directory currently lists over 2,000 organizations and programs by geographic location. Select “Mentoring” in the “Resources Needed” list to find programs that offer mentoring services. The NGCP Web site also has an extensive list of resources, including the NGCP newsletter and links to dozens of girl-serving organizations and Web sites.
Girls’ Electronic Mentoring in Science, Engineering and Technology (GEM-SET) – GEM-SET is part of the Women in Science & Engineering program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The goal of GEM-SET is to connect young girls in middle school and high school with professional women mentors in the STEM fields. Girls must be affiliated with a partner organization.
Inspiring Girls Now In Technology Evolution (IGNITE) – IGNITE originated in the Seattle school district and has grown to include chapters around the country. The organization connects middle and high school girls with professional in STEM careers who act as role models and mentors. Programs also include job shadowing, field trips, career fairs, guidance for internship, scholarship and college admission applications.
Girls, Math & Science Partnership (GMSP) – The Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh sponsors this program for 11-17 year old girls. The main BrainCake Web site is designed to be totally cool, fun and interactive – so very now. Girls can also fill out a simple survey to be matched with a mentor.
Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) – The AWM Mentor Network matches mentors with girls and women who are interested in mathematics or are pursuing careers in mathematics. Grade school and high school girls can apply. Mentors may be women or men, but students have the option of indicating a strong preference for a female mentor on the application.
Aspire – Aspire is the K-12 outreach program sponsored by Society of Women Engineers (SWE). The organization’s signature event is WOW! That’s Engineering where local SWE chapters bring girls and women engineers together to learn about and do engineering. You can contact your regional SWE section to find out if they will be hosting a WOW! That’s Engineering fair in your area.
Sally Ride Science – This organization was established by America’s first woman in space to support girls’ and boys’ interest in math and science, and to make a difference in society’s perceptions of girls’ roles in technical fields. Sally Ride Science sponsors one-day science festivals for 5th – 8th grade girls. Girls entering 4th – 9th grades may participate in hands-on science camps that provide an opportunity to explore science, technology, and engineering on the campus of some of the most prestigious universities. Locations for the summer 2011 included Stanford, Berkeley, UCSD, MIT and Caltech. The parent handbook includes very helpful information and advice on raising talented girls.
My Gifted Girl – My Gifted Girl is a community for gifted girls and women in all subjects, including STEM fields. They serve as a resource for parents, educators, mentors and other organizations that support talented girls and women. Free membership gives you access to My Gifted Girl message boards where mentors can answer posted questions and contribute in specific subject matter areas.
Looking Ahead to High School
National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) – The NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing recognizes high school girls for their computing-related achievements and interests. Winners are chosen for their computing and IT aptitude, leadership ability, academic history, and plans for post-secondary education. Just reading the profiles of past winners is an inspiring experience. They demonstrate that you will find talented girls from a variety of backgrounds and experiences no matter where you look across the country.
Digigirlz – Digigirlz is Microsoft’s program to give high school girls the opportunity to learn about careers in technology. The company hosts Digigirlz Days where students get to interact with Microsoft employees and see what it’s like to work there. They also sponsor multi-day High Tech Camp for girls at no cost.