Opinion Blog

Ask a Psychologist

Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

4 Ways to Present STEM Role Models Girls Will Find Inspiring

How to get past the stereotypes of who becomes a scientist
By Lisa M.P. Munoz & Eva Pietri — March 06, 2024 4 min read
How do I inspire girls to get interested in STEM?
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

How do I inspire girls to get interested in STEM?

In the book and television series Lessons in Chemistry, when asked to name a female scientist, one of the characters can only think of Marie Curie. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, as the story is set in the 1960s, when gender norms prevented most women from pursuing science.

But fast forward to today, and in some respects, not much has changed. In one of our daughters’ 5th grade classroom, students were asked the same question. Marie Curie was among the scant few named, and even fewer knew her story. Yet, we know that female role models are critical in inspiring girls to pursue science.

So how can educators and parents best expose students to more female scientists as potential role models?

The answer may seem simultaneously obvious and counterintuitive: In presenting potential role models, we need to share not only their successes but also their struggles—and importantly, how they overcame hurdles along the way. For the science, technology, engineering, and math fields, this means breaking out from common perceptions. Here are four research-backed ways to do it:

Broaden stereotypes. The canonical image of a scientist is a lone genius who has “aha” breakthroughs. That image is slowly evolving to show scientists working in teams over extended periods of time, but what about the “genius” part? How often do we hear and see stories of scientists who worked hard—even struggled—to make their discoveries? And how often are they women?

The classic “Draw a Scientist” studies that started in the late 1960s show the evolution of how young people perceive science and scientists. For example, while less than 1 percent of children drew someone female when prompted to “draw a scientist” in the late 1960s, a 2018 meta-analysis found that some 33 percent of pictures now appeared female.

Abundant research shows the benefits of female role models for encouraging interest in science for young women, especially women of color. Having a shared identity helps young people see that the science pathway is possible while helping to signal belonging.

Share the struggles. Merely exposing young people to more female scientists isn’t enough. How they are portrayed also matters. Think about Marie Curie. When some of us were growing up, we might have heard something like “Marie Curie was a brilliant chemist who was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize along with her husband Pierre Curie.” We perhaps then heard about the couple’s many accomplishments and successes. Without knowing her story, it could be challenging to see ourselves ever being like this unique, brilliant woman.

But Marie Curie, like many scientists, had her fair share of struggles. She had to balance her work with her family while also having few resources, all while facing the sexism of her time in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. She was also an immigrant, having to leave Poland to pursue an education in France, where women could attend university.

New research suggests that telling this story in full may go a long way in making Marie Curie (and others) a more effective role model, especially for those in underrepresented groups. In a 2024 study in the “Journal of Experimental Child Psychology,” Jessica Gladstone and colleagues found that presenting a role model to girls whose abilities and interests developed over time led to greater motivation in STEM among girls of color.

Consider other identities. Gender is only one dimension of identity that can influence the effectiveness of a role model. Race, socioeconomic status, sexuality, and other intersectional identities also contribute. Looking at role models for Latina women in STEM fields, co-author Pietri and colleagues find that being able to identify with scientists is linked to more trust and belonging as well as interest in STEM environments. Presenting potential role models, whether in a classroom or at home, is about far more than superlatives (“first woman,” “first Latina,” etc.). Rather, children benefit from seeing that anyone, including themselves, can be a scientist and that no one is born a “brilliant scientist.”

Show scientists in action. A great way to expose students to scientists is through films. Role models are distinct from mentors or teachers, as they are often someone whom young people have never interacted with, so impressions of them are shaped by stories. Whether in documentaries, historical fiction (such as Katherine Johnson in the film “Hidden Figures”), or fantasy (such as Shuri in “Black Panther”), these images can inspire and empower young people. We look forward to seeing big-screen portrayals of lesser-known female scientists like physicist Lise Meitner and astronomer Vera Rubin, as well as contemporary scientists like Nobel laureates Jennifer Doudna and Katalin Karikó.

The more we tell the stories of women scientists, both their successes and struggles, the more we can inspire and empower the next generation.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Your Questions on the Science of Reading, Answered
Dive into the Science of Reading with K-12 leaders. Discover strategies, policy insights, and more in our webinar.
Content provided by Otus
Mathematics Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Breaking the Cycle: How Districts are Turning around Dismal Math Scores
Math myth: Students just aren't good at it? Join us & learn how districts are boosting math scores.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How To Tackle The Biggest Hurdles To Effective Tutoring
Learn how districts overcome the three biggest challenges to implementing high-impact tutoring with fidelity: time, talent, and funding.
Content provided by Saga Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Opinion The Biggest Policy Challenges Schools Are Facing Right Now
State legislatures have the power to manipulate knowledge and rewrite history—but not the necessary educational expertise.
9 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Teaching Opinion How to Make Summer School Effective and Engaging
Along with offering meaningful academic lessons, these educators advise incorporating fun so that students want to come to summer school.
6 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Teaching Opinion How to End the School Year Strong
Whatever teachers pick to close out the year, they should include opportunities for students to celebrate and reflect on ways they've grown.
13 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Teaching Opinion Late Assignments: Tips From Educators on Managing Them
Try setting two deadlines, a preferred due date for the majority and a hard deadline for those facing various challenges.
8 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty