STEM programs for Girls: The compost may smell, but it’s still fun.

“I found a worm!” was one of the excited exclamations we heard from numerous girls on Saturday as they dissected compost samples, learning the physical conditions and organic materials required to make compost. Saturday was the FEMMES (Females Excelling More in Math Engineering and Science) annual Capstone Event at Duke. Girls in 4th through 6th grade visited campus and participated in workshops planned by female faculty and graduate students, who led the students in hands-on activities in the fields of science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM).

Wanting to continue the experience I had in a similar program as an undergraduate, I asked FEMMES leaders back in September about creating a new workshop for the event- they enthusiastically responded that new workshops were always welcome. Over the next few months, a few other graduate students and I planned a workshop about the science of composting (can you tell we’re in the Nicholas School?).

Our planning came to fruition on Saturday as girls built their own fake compost piles, learned about ideal composting conditions and carbon to nitrogen ratios, and took qualitative and quantitative measurements of different compost samples donated by Nic Schoolers themselves. Links to our workshop plan and worksheets are at the bottom of this post for anyone to use.

Girls learned how to make a successful compost pile by layering paper cut-outs of carbon-rich “browns” and nitrogen-rich “greens.”

I initially became involved in these kinds of programs not because I felt an urge to “bridge the gender gap” in STEM fields, but because of my experience as a Girl Scout camp counselor for more summers than I can count on one hand. It was the best job I’ve ever had. Teaching someone that they can do something and they can learn something, after some effort and guidance, was a highly valued job perk that counselors experienced on a daily basis. Having female role models they were comfortable with clearly helped the girls reach these so-called “ah-ha” moments.

“Girls in STEM” organizations have been sprouting up around the country to apply the benefits of female role models to the goal of increasing female participation in STEM fields. Research shows that middle school is about the age when girls may start shying away from math and science, and that even women with STEM degrees are less likely to work in a STEM field than men with STEM degrees (see the Girl Scout Generation STEM report and the US Department of Commerce Women in STEM report for more information).

I support these organizations, yet sometimes their underlying strategies and goals are not being communicated clearly enough, leaving people to wonder: Are we assuming that boys already have these opportunities and we need to alter our teaching strategies to provide them to girls too? Are we trying to overcome subconscious stereotypes about women in STEM? Are we assuming that girls in the programs want to go into STEM fields, and that through female role models and STEM activities we are showing them a path exists? Or are we supposed to be swaying their interests too? 

It may help to consider the underlying objectives beneath the goal of increasing female participation in STEM. We know women are underrepresented in STEM fields, and that diversity drives innovation from new perspectives and work styles. So, are we aiming for a more equitable society, or a society with an increased capacity for innovation? It’s both.

I think the goals of Girls in STEM programs should be, in order of importance, 1) self-confidence in capabilities and potential and 2) awareness of STEM fields, opportunities, and role models. I say awareness instead of interest because after being exposed to STEM, a girl may decide she wants to be a policy maker or an orchestra conductor. The programs should still have helped her build confidence to pursue any field. Additionally, co-ed programs that introduce all students to STEM fields are equally important. An overrepresentation of males in STEM should not mean a lack of outreach programs for boys in STEM, and the future success of STEM will depend on more than just the gender ratio.

We also need to be careful that “Girls in STEM” doesn’t become a marketing fad just like “eco-friendly” products that really aren’t.  Some reputable toys have entered the market, including building and coding programs designed for girls’ preference for storytelling. Yet no doubt there will be other products looking to cash in on the new Girls & STEM shelf space in toy stores, and some of these products are already receiving a backlash. The programs themselves also shouldn’t hype more than they are achieving (here’s a humorously sarcastic post on one example).


The effectiveness of Girls in STEM programs varies, but with clear goals that focus on confidence and awareness of opportunities, they can serve a purpose in increasing equity and capacity for innovation. Our signed “Thank You” poster at the end of our last workshop on Saturday makes me think that we made a difference for some participants, and that is completely worth it: This class was AWESOME! Thanks so much!Because of you I am gonna start a compostI am inspired! Thank you!, and the chuckle-inducing: The compost smelled but it was still fun!!! 


Workshop Planning Materials

Science of Composting_FEMMES Lesson Plan

Compost Recipe