What Works? Encouraging Girls in Math and Science

Despite years of research, discussion, and debate, the issue of engaging and encouraging girls in science and math still exists. While there are other gender issues affecting schools (such as boys and literacy), gender imbalances remain within the math and science fields. For example, the National Science Foundation’s report on science and engineering degrees shows that

Women earn 58 percent of all bachelor’s degrees but only 21 percent in engineering, 22 percent in physics, and 25 percent in computer science. At the master’s and doctoral levels, these imbalances become more pronounced and expand to include chemistry and math.

While women make up nearly half of the workforce, they account for only 26 percent of the workforce in science and engineering.

Why do these imbalances exist? Although many factors are potential causes, researchers have found that girls and women have less confidence in their math abilities and less interest in math and science careers. Research also suggests that students (both girls and boys) with confidence in their math and science abilities are more likely to choose and perform well in math and science courses and select related college majors and careers.

How can teachers help girls build confidence in their abilities and interest in math and science? One resource is the Doing What Works web site.


Doing What Works, or DWW, is a web site sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. DWW’s content is largely based on the What Works Clearinghouse of the Institute of Educational Sciences (IES), which evaluates research on practices and interventions. IES produces guides or reports that communicate which practices and interventions are likely to work based on current educational research.

For example, the IES Practice Guide “Encouraging Girls in Math and Science” (2007) recommends five key practices:

  • Teach students that academic abilities are expandable and improvable.

Research shows that what students believe about intelligence and ability affects their achievement. If a student believes that intelligence and abilities are set at birth, she may be more likely to downplay achievement and give up on challenging tasks. Teaching students that intelligence and skills increase with mastery of new and challenging problems provides a way to interpret failure and may help them persevere.

  • Provide prescriptive, informational feedback.

Providing specific feedback about strategies, effort, and the process of learning can positively influence students’ beliefs about their abilities. On the other hand, praise focused on general intelligence (“you’re smart”) may actually negatively impact future learning behavior.

  • Expose girls to female role models who have succeeded in math and science.

Negative stereotypes can lead to decreased engagement and performance, but exposure to female role models may mitigate these effects. Studies have demonstrated these negative effects as early as middle school.

  • Create a classroom environment that sparks initial curiosity and fosters long-term interest in math and science.

Building on initial curiosity can serve as a hook to engage students in math and science content. Teachers can then build on students’ curiosity by providing opportunities for engagement with interesting material.

  • Provide spatial skills training.

Standardized test data suggests that one particular area of imbalance is in the use of spatial reasoning to solve problems. These gender differences are observable as early as first grade. Providing explicit training may help girls develop the spatial skills needed in fields such as computer science, physics, and engineering.

The guide summarizes the research base for each practice, provides a checklist for carrying out the recommendations, and discusses possible roadblocks as well as potential solutions. This and other practice guides are available for download (pdf files) at the IES What Works Clearinghouse’s Publications page.

The DWW site makes the content from the IES Practice Guide accessible through multimedia content. In the Math and Science section of the site, teachers can explore resources related to algebra, foundations for algebra, and encouraging girls in math and science.

On the Encouraging Girls in Math and Science page, teachers can access a multimedia overview of the five key recommendations. The main page also includes three tabs: overview media & materials, state/district policy & planning, and related links.

For each of the five Recommended Practices, teachers can

  • Learn What Works: Understand the research-based recommendation through documents, interviews, and related web links.
  • See How it Works: Explore how actual schools are implementing the recommendation through slide shows, video, and interviews.
  • Do What Works: Use a collection of tools and ideas to implement the recommendation.

Finally, a digital workshop provides an overview of the five recommendations and presents much of the content from the IES Practice Guide. The workshop is organized into seven chapters and is accompanied by downloadable activities and resources. The workshop can be viewed individually, or by groups of teachers and administrators during an inservice or professional development event.

DWW Resources

Doing What Works
The Doing What Works home page contains information about early childhood education, English language learners, and math and science. The resources discussed in this article are found in the Encouraging Girls in Math and Science section.

What Works Clearinghouse
The home page for the clearinghouse. A source of scientific evidence for what works in education.

IES Practice Guides
Download four practice guides produced by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Digital Teacher Workshops
Associated with the Doing What Works and Teacher-to-Teacher initiatives, this site is home to digital workshops focused on research-based practice guides. The site currently has two workshops, English Language Learners and Encouraging Girls in Math and Science.


While these resources are not part of the Doing What Works site, they may be useful for teachers as they strive to engage girls in math and science.

Designed for students, this site is a project of the National Academy of Sciences intended to showcase the accomplishments of contemporary women in science. Students can read about ten women in science, explore a timeline of women in science, and play games.

Girls Go Tech
A Girl Scout site that allows girls to explore careers and real-world applications of math, science, and technology.

Girls in Science: A Framework for Action
This book, available from NSTA Press, examines the reasons for gender inequity in the science classroom and discusses goals for students, teachers, and science.

Reader of the Rocks
This informational article from the September 2008 issue of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears profiles Julie Codispoti, geologist and assistant curator at the U.S. Polar Rock Repository. Codispoti discusses how she learned that she could be good at science with hard work – a great message to encourage girls! The article is available at three grade levels (K-1, 2-3, and 4-5) and in text-only, color book, and electronic book formats.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Jessica at beyondpenguins@msteacher.org.

Copyright April 2009 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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