CQ University specialist Dr Wendy Fasso says that students need a more supportive atmosphere from an early age.
“We need to provide a non-judgemental bridge period until girls are confident enough to embrace the idea of engaging in science and technology."
Fasso says that before seeing science as ‘nerd stuff’ or ‘boy stuff’ and before they become products of the social norming process, that educators need to work with girls without interruptions or distractions while they are formulating their self-concept.
“We need to reach them and capture their interests before the ages when they are interrogating who they are and before they are bombarded with conflicting messages about stereotypes and gender roles," she says.
“Promoting science to girls in Years 10, 11 and 12 through university school visits is admirable but is really too late for maximum influence.
“I’ve been drawing the dots and can see it’s crucial that, during the ages they are formulating their ideas of who they are and what they can achieve, and forming their friendship circles, we influence their study interests and ensure they are proud to be science nerds.”
Based in Bundaberg, Fasso has been researching how to bolster girls in the STEM subjects in association with a ‘Makerspace’ project.
The pilot has been offering teenage girls the chance to incorporate software coding into art, fashion and hairstyles – melding technology with creativity and ensuring science is connected to their everyday interests.
“Before our Makerspace project, none of the girls would identify as being a nerd but afterwards all of them were proud to be identified as a science nerd," Fasso says.
“What we are finding is that our teenage girls have not yet out-grown the need to play and they respond to a playful learning environment … perhaps we never outgrow our need to play.
Educators can tap into that as a teaching tool using a playful learning environment underpinned by more serious technology lessons, Fasso explains, and this helps to bridge to the age when the girls become confident enough not to be orientated to social norms.
“Our Makerspace girls told us ‘we didn’t think we could but we can’.
"They were actually frustrated they could not immediately go further with their software coding and programming.
"They develop an interest and skills in solving problems, and find out that they are good at it."
Fasso says she and her fellow researchers have been working with teenagers, but she's convinced that educators need to influence girls at a much younger age, before they become obsessed with conforming to social norms.
“My studies are showing that girls in upper primary school are trying to construct who they are and are getting conflicting messages … that’s the critical time to be working with them.
“This upper primary time is when they are facing body issues and social pressures while exploring who they are and what they are capable of.
“When girls are little they are built up and told they are all wonderful but as they progress into high school their own self-concept is challenged.
“We need a circuit breaker just before they reach high school to break the pressure that’s on them to avoid nerdiness and to try to be too cool for school.”