Young women need role models in STEM

Tricia Berry

Nerdy. Brilliant at math. Antisocial. Works in isolation. Poor communicator. Old. White. Male. 

Stereotypes of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professionals persist. Even with diverse scientists and engineers featured in hit movies such as “Hidden Figures” and “Black Panther,” shows like the “The Big Bang Theory” perpetuate STEM stereotypes and can negatively impact how young girls perceive themselves in STEM roles.

You can’t be what you can’t see. It’s difficult to aspire to be an engineer if you have never met an engineer. It’s challenging to get excited about being a scientist if you don’t know how a scientist impacts our lives and our world. It’s hard to get excited about STEM classes or majors if you don’t identify with the stereotypes. Diverse STEM role models matter if we want to increase the diversity in STEM fields. And diversity in the STEM profession matters if we want to have the best solutions to the challenges that face our world. 

Girl Day at UT Austin is a one-day outreach program designed to bust through STEM stereotypes and excite girls about STEM careers. Girl Day gives elementary and middle school students of all genders a chance to explore STEM through grade-appropriate, hands-on activities hosted by diverse volunteer scientists, engineers and STEM enthusiasts from over 160 student organizations, research centers, corporate partners and community organizations. 

Our amazing Girl Day STEM role models inspire participants by using research-based best practices to engage girls in STEM. Participants see women engineers with the Society of Women Engineers having fun doing challenging, hands-on engineering projects. They meet black computer scientists with the Association of UT Austin Black Computer Scientists problem solving with coding. They work in teams, with guidance from STEM role models, to solve transportation challenges, launch rockets and design strong spaghetti bridges. They experience the struggle to figure out how to make things work and learn that it’s persistence, not brilliance, which makes a STEM student or professional successful. 

Our STEM role models make the Girl Day hands-on activities and demonstrations personally relevant to the participants. They point out the connection between the activity and how math or science is being used, such as how triangles in a gumdrop dome make the structure stronger. They connect the activity to STEM in our everyday world and make comparisons to things students can see or touch in their daily lives such as bicycles, cell phones, video games or drinking water. Our role models explain how engineers and scientists discover, design, imagine, innovate and contribute to making our world healthier, happier and safer.

Girl Day role models also celebrate the struggle and embrace failure with participants. They push participants to test and try again and redesign to improve. When a toothpick tower falls down, our role models share their own stories of failure and help the participants brainstorm solutions for a stronger structure. When a glowing dough creature doesn’t light up, participants learn from Girl Day role models how to troubleshoot and problem solve. Participants learn that failure is part of the process, engineers and scientists don’t have all the answers and aren’t brilliant, and problem solving and working in teams to get to a solution can be fun. 

All genders. All races and ethnicities. All ages. All personalities. Persistent more than brilliant. Smiling, fun, social communicators. Role models matter. 

Our Girl Day STEM role models represent the diversity we desire for the STEM profession. Our Girl Day participants can see it. Through Girl Day at UT Austin, we hope to inspire them to be it.

Berry is the director of the Women in Engineering Program.