Globally, millions of girls are excluded from educational opportunities. Specifically for science and technology, the exclusion begins early and worsens over time. By the time students reach college and university, only 18% of girls are pursuing STEM, compared to 35% of boys. Girls are left behind and actively discouraged from pursuing studies and careers in STEM fields. This matters because these subjects often provide critical thinking, problem solving, and technological skills that are essential for everyone in our rapidly changing world.

As a very first step to challenge narratives that diminish girls’ potential, we need to loudly and whole-heartedly invite and encourage them to tackle real problems and support them as they learn. We also need to engage parents to support their daughters. Techbridge Girls examined parent support of girls’ STEM interest in 2017, and their findings mirror ours: “When parents are engaged in children’s learning—asking about their interests, inviting them to participate in “under the hood” learning, supporting their progress—we see a positive impact on many elements of academic achievement.”

Since parent engagement is baked into Technovation’s programs (our earliest programs were “Family Science” sessions we ran afterschool at schools, libraries, and community centers), we wanted to share some of the things we teach participating parents.

Value mistakes and learning from failure

Hearing your child say, “I’m just not smart” or “I’ll never be good at that” is devastating. As adults, we know that children are not born with predetermined abilities and skills, but some children may believe that about themselves. Researchers have found that as early as age six, girls are likely to believe boys are smarter, and to avoid games described as being for “really smart people.” And when we talk about science, engineering, and technology as fields for naturally brilliant people, those stereotypes about girls not being good at math or science carry even more weight. But failure and mistakes are part of every field. Everyone makes mistakes when they learn because learning is hard!

As parents, we can help our children understand that if something is difficult for them to learn, it doesn’t mean they’re not smart or that they’re not good at that subject.

  • Help your child break tasks into manageable steps, which also helps reduce the size of a failure. Rather than working for hours on a project only to have a mistake at the last minute, help your child persevere through smaller failures more often.
  • Have conversations with your child that help him or her understand that failure is not a weakness. Talk about times when you’ve made mistakes or failed, and how you built the confidence to try again.
  • Create a home environment that values trying—and failing—as an essential part of learning and growing.

Learn to ask the right questions

You don’t need to be an engineer to support your daughter with a computer science project. You, like your daughter, just need to be curious and ask some good questions.

A big part of our parent training focuses on asking better questions—specifically questions that don’t have a simple yes or no answer. These kinds of open-ended questions can help kids (and adults) develop reasoning skills and learn how to communicate effectively.

Types of Questions

  • Leading questions tend to hint at a “right” answer, or tell a child how to respond. These questions are great for reminding children about specific details, like an upcoming deadline or assignment. But they invite a child to answer in a specific way, and don’t leave room for creativity or analysis.
    Ex: You remember that the submission deadline is on April 19th, right? 
  • Closed questions invite children to answer with “yes” or “no” or from a list of options. These can be good to determine if your child understands a concept, but they don’t offer room for creative thinking or reflection, which help with learning.
    Ex: Is your team building an app to address climate change or education inequality? 
  • Open-ended questions have an unlimited number of possible answers. Answers are often based on a child’s feelings, opinions, or ideas. These questions are a great way to develop critical thinking skills and creativity.
    Ex: Can you explain how your app works to me?
    They’re also a great way to get your child to talk about their feelings and ideas. Ex: How are you feeling about how your team is collaborating?

You can also follow up with “why?” or “how?” to lead to more open-ended conversations. Some of our other favorite ways to start questions are:

  • How would you design something that…?
  • What would happen if…?
  •  Is there a better solution to…?
  • Can you teach me about…?
  • How would you explain…?
  • What is the relationship between…?
  • What does this mean?
  • Is this the same as…?
  • Can you explain…?

Test it out! We created a tool that you can use to practice asking different kinds of questions. We filled out an example that shows how you might plan to ask your child different questions as you work on one of our hands-on engineering design challenges together. If you don’t want to build your own dinosaur, you can also make a blank copy of the template and fill it out so it meets the needs of your own project.

. . . and then be a good listener

Asking good questions can be a powerful way to engage children but listening well matters, too! Listening to your child’s answers more actively might look like:

  • Giving your full attention to your child and stopping whatever else you’re doing—and make eye contact!
    • Allow “wait time” for your child to answer or finish their thought before responding. Sometimes people are shy about answering questions or need a little time to think about their response. It might feel like it lasts forever, but give your child a few seconds to respond before you jump back in.
    • Withhold your judgement, and be open to new ideas, perspectives, and possibilities. Don’t deflate your daughter’s idea before she has a chance to try it out. Ask more questions and learn more about her idea and why she’s pursuing it. There will be time to offer your opinion and perspective later.
  • Reflect the way your child is responding to you by periodically paraphrasing the key points.
    “You’re disappointed that your team didn’t want to survey your classmates about the app. Did you explain why you thought the survey was so important?”
  • Clarify anything you’re not sure you understand. If something your child is sharing or explaining isn’t clear, ask for more information. “Can you explain that to me?” “How will that work?” “Is this idea the same as…?”
  • Share your thoughts in return. As you gain a better understanding of your child’s ideas and experiences, you can begin to introduce your ideas and suggestions, or share similar experiences you’ve had.