Hands-on experience matters for maintaining girls' confidence in STEM subjects, study finds


The education system needs to strengthen how girls and women connect science, technology, engineering and math coursework to real life, according to the conclusions of a recent study commissioned by Microsoft.

Girls who are just starting to study STEM subjects are often confident in their abilities, but as they enter higher education and the workforce, that confidence starts to wane, the study of 6,009 girls and young women found.

One takeaway, says Microsoft spokeswoman Annie Arnold, is that girls 10-17 make firmer connections with STEM subjects if they have access to hands-on experiences outside of the classroom. Seventy-two percent of girls surveyed said it is important for them to have a job that directly helps the world.

“How do we build a STEM curriculum that better simulates the world? We want to paint a better vision of what they can do with these skills,” Arnold says.

The survey by KRC Research contacted girls ages 10-17 and young women ages 18-30 in late January and early February, with the goal of seeing what changes over time for those who show an early interest in STEM fields and try to build careers in them.

The research found that only 3 in 5 girls in general knew how STEM subjects could be applied to their lives and to their career prospects.

The numbers get better, however, when the exposure to STEM work is less abstract: Seventy-five percent of girls who participate in STEM-related clubs know about jobs they can pursue with the knowledge they get, the survey found.

One 14-year-old participant said, “My tests say I’m a good engineer and I wish I knew what that looked like in real life. I want to see women in STEM careers on posters in the hall, in our history and science texts, and visit our classes.”

Another participant said that engineering “sounds like more of a masculine job.”

Having an available support system can make a huge difference, Microsoft found. When girls have parental and teacher support, they are twice as likely to consider taking computer science in high school. Even more telling, the dual support system makes girls three times as likely to study computer science in college.

The support is not limited to parents and teachers. Peers can also make a difference by encouraging girls, Arnold said.

The research also showed that rural areas had less access to STEM knowledge. Arnold says that Microsoft hopes to get more computer science programs into rural communities.