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Supporting Your Daughter's Interest in STEM From K to 12

While you probably won't be able to predict the hook that will draw your daughter into science, technology, engineering and math, encouraging her to explore, connecting her to role models, and supporting her effort to plan will put her in a good position to succeed.
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Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

"So this is pretty much the coolest job there is." -- Dorit Donoviel, Ph.D.,
Chief Deputy of Research, National Space Biomedical Research Institute

While "STEM" is not quite a household acronym, supporting your daughter's interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (at any age), and encouraging her to pursue those interests is more than worthwhile.

The play, excitement, and satisfaction derived from solving complex scientific and or mathematical problems can and should be cultivated across all age groups and genders. STEM learning is accessible and needed: exploration, connecting to caring adults, planning for their futures, and linking what they learn to their careers and life after graduation.

Girls need role models, and the phrase, "If you can see it, you can do it" often holds true. Girls need to hear from authentic, passionate women, in really exciting jobs, about their careers, what inspired them as learners and professionals, and how they got to where they are today. Connections with women like Dorit Donoviel, are powerful influencers for young girls. First-hand interaction with someone such as Dorit can inspire young girls by demystifying what it takes to succeed in a STEM career. However, not all girls will have access to someone like Dorit. So how can you help your daughter see what's possible for her future?

During elementary school, encourage exploration and play, both in general and related to STEM. Provide your daughter with opportunities to engage in structured activities such as hands-on experiments, role-playing, and interactive games to broaden her perspectives and experiences, and many unstructured times, to promote her creativity and confidence. Research shows that play can have long-term benefits, such as better outcomes in math and more developed abstract thinking.

Connect to caring adults
  • Children need someone to listen to them and share their excitement over discovering new activities and interests.
  • If a parent, guardian, relative, or family friend has a job related to STEM at a location that's child-friendly, create your own informal field trip. Plan the visit with your daughter ahead of time, finding out what she's interested in learning, seeing, and doing. Introduce her to colleagues, and give her a tour of where you work--give her a glimpse of what your normal workday is like.
  • During elementary school, parents and guardians lay the foundation for future academic planning. What activities and subjects engage your daughter's interests? What are her preferred ways to explore and learn? What kind of environment builds her confidence?
Link learning to life
  • Your student explores interests in school, out of school, during play, etc. The emphasis is on trying new things in addition to learning more about what she already knows she likes. Visit hands-on exhibits at the science museum, if one is close, and try fun experiments at home.
  • Point out to your daughter examples of adults with similar interests and how they pursue them in school and career. "Beth likes going to the beach and learning about the animals there, just like you do! She studied about the ocean and animals in college and now figures out ways to keep them healthy."
  • Support your child's interests, and encourage her to broaden her horizons.

In middle school, students can really start seeing the connections between their interests, education, and future careers -- many schools have students take interest assessments, choose some of their courses, and learn about different careers. At some point during middle school, students may start creating individual learning plans that map out courses and other activities for future years. It's still a time of exploration, with students learning about themselves and all the possibilities open to them. At the same time, they are learning habits that will help them be successful long-term.

  • Students often take interest and learning style assessments in middle school, and you can use those assessments as conversation starters. What are her interests, and how does she best learn? What insights do the results give about subjects to explore? What are the academic and career paths followed by people who have similar results on the interest assessment?
  • Look into afterschool activities and reading about STEM topics of interest.
  • Play is still important. Researchers from Vanderbilt University recently found that students who have well-developed spatial reasoning -- an ability that can be developed through play -- are more likely during their later careers to publish in scholarly journals and make innovative contributions to STEM fields.
Connect to caring adults
  • Students always need caring adults to listen and to give advice and support. Now is a good time to help you daughter find role models who love what they do and are honest about overcoming challenges along the way.
  • Have your daughter shadow someone at a STEM-related job. That person could be a good candidate for mentoring your daughter.
  • Help your daughter develop strategies for academic success -- good study habits, time management, organization, motivation, and goal setting. Learning style assessments, for example, will give her insights into specific habits and environments that will make studying more productive.
  • Encourage her to take courses that are as rigorous as possible. Not only will she learn more advanced material, she will gain confidence from adapting to a challenge.
  • Many states and schools require students to develop an individual learning plan (ILP) beginning in middle school. ILPs are a compilation of the student's academic performance, extracurricular activities, and long-term goals. They generally include standardized test scores, interest assessments, college readiness activities, and course planning. ILPs should be updated annually at a minimum.
Link learning to life
  • Talk with your daughter as she's making connections between interests, education, and career, and reinforce the need for planning.
  • If you have access to a campus, plan activities that familiarize your student with the college or university. Some familiarity with a college or university campus will help your daughter envision herself going there and down the road, will help her make the transition to higher education. If you know someone attending college, ask if your daughter can visit for a day. Attend events at a local campus to help your daughter start feeling comfortable in that setting.

High school is a time of more exploration but also of decisions and transitions. Help your daughter explore the exciting possibilities before her, and work with her to take the steps necessary to build a life she loves.

  • High school students often take assessments of academic and career interests, and follow-up to that exploration should include planning for and taking the practical steps needed to pursue those interests.
  • The college search process accelerates during the high school years. Students learn about types of colleges, research institutions that offer programs they're interested in, and find out about financial aid. Time and effort put into researching options will pay off at decision time.
Connect to caring adults
  • If your daughter doesn't have a mentor or hasn't had an internship in her field of interest, she should research and make those connections in high school. Encourage her to observe the traits and skills of happy and successful people and to think of how she can develop those traits and skills.
  • Community service is another way to meet caring adults and get involved in local efforts related to personal interests.
  • Instill in your daughter the willingness to ask for support when needed. In college, she will be responsible for meeting with professors if she has a question or needs additional assistance. Recognizing when she needs help and being willing to get it while in high school will give her the groundwork to tackle challenges in college.
  • If your daughter has an individual learning plan, make sure she reviews it often and keeps it updated. Make it a living document that reflects her true interests and outlines the steps needed to navigate the college admission process and then progress though college to a successful future.
  • Encourage her to take rigorous courses and to keep her effort level high through graduation. Good grades are important.
  • Sit down with your daughter and map out steps of the college application process. Encourage her to make check lists to ensure she stays proactive and on track.
  • Being accepted to college isn't the end of planning. Talking about finances, connecting with classmates, and learning about campus support services ahead of time will help her make a successful transition to college.
Link learning to life
  • We often stress the importance of networking, but we don't do enough to help students develop networking strategies and learn how to make connections. Mentors, internships, and community service projects are excellent ways to build the foundation of a professional network.
  • As your daughter begins taking STEM-focused courses in high school, encourage her to find opportunities for gaining work experience (and connections) that match her interests.

"That was it; that was the hook. I thought, 'Wow, I've got to do this.'" - Dorit Donoviel, Ph.D., Chief Deputy of Research, National Space Biomedical Research Institute

While you probably won't be able to predict the hook that will draw your daughter into science, technology, engineering and math, encouraging her to explore, connecting her to role models, and supporting her effort to plan will put her in a good position to succeed.