Is a gender gap in STEM still present? Are boys and girls really equal when it comes to their education? And can changing the teaching approach help girls thrive in STEM?
In the 21st century, the knowledge of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) leading to constant innovation and advancements is more important than ever. The demand for qualified STEM workforce is rising worldwide offering lucrative and better-paying career opportunities, but also people not working directly in STEM need to use scientific knowledge and advanced technological skills in their jobs and in their daily lives to make informed decisions about critical issues (Benish, 2018).
However, Italian students don’t seem to have a strong foundation in STEM subjects. According to the recent results of PISA 2022 (OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment), Italy scored close to the OECD average in mathematics and less than the OECD average in science, with a smaller proportion of students, than on average across OECD countries, were top performers in at least one subject (OECD, 2023).
Even though elementary education in Italy is compulsory and free for all, with boys and girls attending the same classes and studying the same subjects, there is an evident gender gap in STEM performance. In the PISA 2022, boys outperformed girls in mathematics by 21 score points in Italy. Globally, in mathematics, boys outperform girls in 40 countries. In science, the performance difference between boys and girls follows a similar trend but is not significant (OECD, 2023). These findings indicate a deeply rooted gender gap in female participation in STEM fields manifesting also at later stages of education and professional path.
Data clearly show a gap between men’s and women’s participation rate in STEM higher education. Women make up more than half of tertiary graduates (58.4%), but only 8.8% have a STEM degree in Italy. Furthermore, the share of graduates in information and communication technologies is particularly low, at just 1.4% compared to the EU average of 3.9%. Less than a fifth are women (Education and Training Monitor, 2022).
This trend is longstanding and its explanation is very complex and can´t be fully described given many variables and individual traits. A part of the foundation of the gender gap, however, can be found in the education system and teaching approaches widely applied. Some research (Gilligan, 1982; Belenky et al., 1986; Becker, 1995 in Bevan, 2001) suggest that girls have traditionally been discriminated against in mathematics because of their preferred styles of learning. It is argued that girls tend to be ‘connected’ thinkers who require the exploration of context and interrelationships when encountering new mathematics. Head (1995 in Bevan 2001) has proposed that girls prefer cooperative, supportive working environments whereas boys work well in competitive, pressurised environments. Also, boys show greater adaptability to more traditional approaches to learning which require memorising abstract, unambiguous facts and rules that have to be acquired quickly. On the other hand, girls do better than boys on sustained tasks that are open- ended, process-based, related to realistic situations, and that require pupils to think for themselves (Arnot et al., 1998 in Bevan, 2001).
To cut this gap, we need to focus on adapting the teaching approaches in Maths and other STEM subjects to favour girls´ participation and encourage their interest in STEM concepts. Teachers need to be highly competent in explaining the importance of STEM to younger children, emphasising the practical use in contexts children are familiar with, and stimulating pupils’ genuine curiosity about STEM subjects. Thus, the presentation of STEM disciplines as something highly theoretical must shift to a more tangible and relatable approach.
With this in mind, the STEAM Tales project promotes the use of storytelling and hands-on experiments in STEM education, as a method of presenting STEM topics in a way that younger children (6 to 9 years old) can easily engage with. We will develop 12 ready-to-use lesson plans, including stories of women in STEAM and related hands-on experiments scenarios.
The real stories of women role-models have the potential to present STEM in an engaging and stimulating way while creating inclusive learning environments, and empowering young girls of all backgrounds to immerse in STEM studies and pursue STEM careers.
On the 23rd of November 2023, project partners met in Slovenia to discuss the current state-of-art of STEM education and gender gap in Europe to set a common understanding and define the final shape of the first results: the Introductory guide: “Empowering girls through STEAM: cultivating curiosity and creating opportunities”, and plan the next steps in the development of the Stories of successful women in STEM and piloting.
Each partner will identify two high-achieving female role models from various areas of STEM from their country, possibly one from history and one still active in her field. Subsequently, partners will elaborate on her success story, following a story-telling model proposed by University of Porto. The final stories will be accompanied by experiments and structured as lesson plans to be later tested in local elementary schools.
About the project
STEAM Tales – Enhancing STEAM education through storytelling and hands-on learning is a two-year-project funded by Erasmus+, KA220-SCH – Cooperation partnerships in school education, implemented in five European countries.
- MIND – Mittelhessisches Institut für Nachhaltigkeit und Diversität gGmbHNome (Germany, coordinator)
- GoINNO Inštitut (Slovenia)
- CESIE (Italy)
- Universidade do Porto (Portugal)
- SCS LogoPsyCom (Belgium)
For further information
Contact Cecilie La Monica Grus: email@example.com.