For the first time, the number of female college graduates in the labor force has surpassed that of their male counterparts, per a new Pew Research Center analysis of 2019 first-quarter data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Yet, the number of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs remains steady and below 30%, despite corporations and nonprofits partnering to promote STEM education for girls. It’s even dropped in some sectors like computer science, according to a recent 60 Minutes news report.

The Pew analysis shows that women account for only 25% of college-educated workers in computer occupations and 15% of college-educated workers in engineering occupations.

To shed light on how we as educators can help shift these stats, I spoke with international educator and STEM author Erin Twamley. Through research on the gender achievement gap visible in test scores and sharing the diverse faces of STEM in classrooms, she is working to help students see themselves in STEM.

Here are some of her strategies that empower female students while engaging all students.

Broaden the definition of STEM

"First, we need to redefine STEM and how we approach it as educators, and then look at how to encourage girls’ participation and skills in these areas," explained Twamley.

Instead of compartmentalizing STEM into subject areas, we need to focus on supporting students in developing skills that are the building blocks used in STEM disciplines. Through project-based learning that involves scientific discovery, problem solving, creativity and investigation, students can be engaging in STEM processes every day — even at a very young age.

"For example, what young child doesn’t love to solve puzzles?" asks Twamley. "Let a child’s natural curiosity drive learning and then associate that learning process with STEM."

Landstuhl Girl Scout Troop (Germany) learning about astronomer Dr. Wanda Diaz-Merced and making telescopes with Erin Twamley.

Helping kids make the link between activities they enjoy and STEM

Indeed, helping girls make the association between certain activities they enjoy and STEM may be a missing piece of the puzzle.

Creativity is key for girls based on research done at Microsoft, shared Bonnie Ross, a corporate vice president at Microsoft in charge of its video game studio, in the aforementioned 60 minutes program.

"Of the girls we've talked to, 91% of them feel that they are creative, they identify with being creative. But when asked about computer science, they don't see computer science as creative," she told CBS correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi.

"And so, I think that we do need to connect the dots. Because it is incredibly creative, it's just that we're not doing a good job of showing them what they can do with it."

Portraying today’s female STEM heroes

An analysis by Northwestern University researchers of five decades of “draw a scientist” studies suggest that children begin to associate science with men in grade school. Over 70% of today’s elementary school and middle school children drew scientists as men with while lab coats and glasses — with the tendency increasing as they get older.

"These changes across children’s age likely reflect that children’s exposure to male scientists accumulates during development, even in recent years," notes David Uttal, co-author of the Northwestern study and professor of education and psychology.

"We need to do a better job of sharing stories and images of people working in STEM, not just old dead scientists!" emphasizes Twamley. "Let’s show kids who’s creating your favorite movie characters today, who’s designing your favorite apps, and the games you like to play."

She took it upon herself to create a new resource by co-authoring a book featuring 26 diverse women currently working in STEM, "Everyday Superheroes: Women in STEM Careers."

In creating the book, she was inspired in part by the hashtag #actuallivingscientists, and asked herself, "Who are the next generation of STEM women leaders? What they are working on?"

In a May Newsweek article, entitled "Women in STEM: Without female role models, we risk losing brilliant minds in the field," Margaret A. Hamburg and Nicole Small write, "For girls, seeing someone who looks like them, as well as understanding how that woman got to where she is, buoys them with courage to chase their dreams."

"It's a proven approach," they continue, pointing to a 2018 Microsoft survey that showed having STEM role models increases girls' interest in STEM careers from 32% to 52%.

Role models, who Twamley introduces as “STEM Superheroes,” include environmental scientist Janice Lao, who works with hotels to reduce their carbon footprint, and Sonya Carey, the animator of beloved Disney princess Tiana. Currently, she takes the sharing of these diverse stories and mentors to Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) military schools in Europe.

Interestingly, among the approximately 5,000 children, teachers and parents she’s reached at her live visits, no one has complained that the STEM stories feature only women. On the contrary, through her presentations and books she’s seen a lot of "a-ha" moments when a reader/student relates to one of the images and is excited to see someone who looks like them.