There are gender differences in learning styles specific to science, math, engineering and technology (STEM) that teachers of these subjects should keep in mind when developing lesson plans and teaching in the classroom. First, overall, girls have much less experience in the hands-on application of learning principles in lab settings than boys. This could occur in the computer lab, the science lab, or the auto lab – the principle is the same for all of these settings – it requires an overall technology problem-solving schema, accompanied by use and manipulation of tools, and spatial relation skills that very few girls bring with them to the classroom on day one in comparison to boys.
Let’s look at some of the reasons why girls come to the STEM classroom with less of the core skills needed for success in this subject area. Overall, girls and boys play with different kinds of games in early childhood that provide different types of learning experiences. Most girls play games that emphasize relationships (i.e., playing house, playing with dolls) or creativity (i.e., drawing, painting). In contrast, boys play computer and video games or games that emphasize building (i.e., LEGO®), both of which develop problem-solving, spatial-relationship and hands-on skills.
A study of gender differences in spatial relations skills of engineering students in the U.S. and Brazil found that there was a large disparity between the skills of female and male students. These studies attributed female student’s lesser skills set to two statistically significant factors: 1) less experience playing with building toys and 2) having taken less drafting courses prior to the engineering program. Spatial relations skills are critical to engineering. A gender study of computer science majors at Carnegie-Mellon University (one of the preeminent computer science programs in the country) found that, overall, male students come equipped with much better computer skills than female students. This equips male students with a considerable advantage in the classroom and could impact the confidence of female students.
Are these gender differences nature or nurture? There is considerable evidence that they are nurture. Studies show that most leading computer and video games appeal to male interests and have predominantly male characters and themes, thus it is not surprising that girls are much less interested in playing them. A study of computer games by Children Now found that 17% of the games have female characters and of these, 50% are either props, they tend to faint, have high-pitched voices, and are highly sexualized.
There are a number of studies that suggest that when girls and women are provided with the building blocks they need to succeed in STEM they will do as well if not better than their male counterparts. An Introductory Engineering Robotics class found that while males did somewhat better on the pre-test than females, females did as well as the males on the post-test following the class’s completion.
Another critical area of gender difference that teachers of STEM should keep in mind has less to do with actual skills …