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  • Writer's pictureDonna Milgram

How to Instill Technical Confidence in STEM Students

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

For many years, STEM classes have been run like military boot camps. Students are told, “we are going to see what you are made of, and if you finish the introductory class, you might be cut out to be an engineer or a computer scientist or an automotive technician.” The problem with that model is that in the US, STEM classes lose 50% of their students, losing an even higher percentage of women and underrepresented minorities.

Then the groundbreaking work of Carnegie Mellon came along, which greatly increased the enrollment of female students and their retention in one of the best computer science programs in the country. In a book about how they did it, “Unlocking the Computer Clubhouse,” we learn that the success formula involves opening the funnel up to keep students in rather than weed them out.

One example of this was creating activities that built technical confidence in students from the first day of class so that those students that did not come to the program already fluent in computer programming would know they could do it. One of the 12 strategies of the WomenTech Training Retention Plan Template is “Instilling Technical Confidence during the First Week of Class.”

Research shows that overall, women come with less technical background than men. Even today, I teach a whole module on girls and games to explain why. If instructors want to retain diverse students, their messaging and classroom activities need to change from “this is hard” to “you can do this!” In a WomenTech Training I gave last week, instructors for a machine technology program brainstormed an activity to include in their plan that will do this from day one. When this is implemented, female retention will be made even easier because there are now 10 female students in the introductory machining class compared to the usual 1 or 2 from their successful WomenTech Recruitment Plan.

Have you ever really wanted to do something very badly but felt you couldn’t do it, and then your teacher talked you through it, and in the end, you were successful?

My motto is Never, Never, Never Give Up - although that's exactly what I wanted to do when I took a 3-day Kayaking Course this past August. I’m an experienced paddler of 8 years, but I didn’t know how to self-rescue, which is dangerous. On day 2 of the course (self-rescue day), I was so anxious that I thought my life vest was on too tight when in fact, it was chest pain caused by anxiety.

Being an expert on upper body strength of women vs. men from the work I’ve done with law enforcement, I explained to my teacher Cody (while treading water) that at 5’4”, I just didn’t have the upper body strength to self-rescue and that I needed to go back to lifting weights again. Luckily, he didn’t believe me and just kept encouraging me to take the next step. In the photos below, you see me carrying out the Rodeo Self-Rescue. I am proud to say I ultimately did it on the first try, and I was the only one in the class to do so. Good thing Cody didn’t listen to me; instead, he held the space for me that I could do it when I couldn’t hold it for myself.

Now the truth is that the Rodeo Rescue is hard, but focusing on that wouldn’t have gotten me up the mountain or, in this case, up into the kayak. This is what STEM teachers need to do to retain more students - help them see that they can do it even when they don’t see it themselves.

Increasing retention rates of students is hard, but I’ve helped programs do this in a timeframe as short as one semester. I can help your STEM Program increase Recruitment as well.

Make time to talk with me about bringing the WomenTech Training to your School - get the support your program deserves.

How do you instill technical confidence in your STEM or CTE students?



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