It is a well-known fact that women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math. The statistics are depressing. Women make up only 28% of the workforce in science and engineering occupations, even though women account for half of the college-educated workforce. This gender disparity begins at an early age, starting in elementary school. Boys outperform girls in math and science in Kindergarten, Grade 4 and Grade 8. Boys are four times more likely to take the computer science Advanced Placement (AP) exam in high school. Women make up only 19% of those earning college degrees in engineering and only 18% in computer science even though women earn 57% of degrees in all fields.
What's going on?
It’s not that girls are worse at math and science than boys. From a very young age, girls are sent messages suggesting that they are not as good at these subjects as boys. The messages can be as direct as praising girls’ social interactions and boys’ math performance or as subtle as not calling on a girl who raised her hand to answer a math question.
The fact that our educational system is biased against girls is no surprise given the gendering inherent in our society — have you ever tried to buy clothing for a young girl that wasn’t pink or a pastel color? It’s not just clothing, either. Toys are marketed as either “for girls” or “for boys.” “Girl” toys are often dolls, costumes and household appliances, colored in pinks and pastels, while “boy” toys are often trucks, blocks and construction sets, and come in blues and muted, earthy colors.
For kids play is a form of learning — children learn skills based on the type of play that they do. The most apparent skills supported by construction toys are visuospatial reasoning skills. While on the surface, it might seem like these skills only have to do with building things, there are clear connections with other skills.
Visuospatial skills are a big part of non-verbal intelligence and a building block for more complex skills. Along with verbal and quantitative abilities, visuospatial skills are one of the three most important factors related to learning and work success. Children with strong visuospatial skills are more likely to earn degrees and have careers in the STEM fields.
How can parents change that behavior?
In a world of gender-driven toys and games "Minecraft" has created a remarkable level playing field. It’s a videogame, but it’s more properly categorized as a virtual building toy. You build environments for your character to live in. As anyone with a kid can attest to, "Minecraft" is one of the most popular games in the United States right now. It has over 100 million registered users. I contacted Mojang, the company behind "Minecraft," to find out exactly how many of those people were girls. They don't release that sort of information. But "Minecraft" is unique in the gaming world in that there is a more even gender balance among players. Indeed, one of the most popular "Minecraft" YouTube personalities is iHasCupquake, a young girl who shares the magnificent worlds she has built within the game with her 1.59 million subscribers.
The game is not focused on traditional gender stereotypes. There are no princesses to save. There are no racecars to build. There are no evil bosses to destroy. Instead, play involves non-stereotyped processes like building farms to have food to feed your character.
Get your girls online!
Parents are constantly being warned about the dangers of too much screen time. And while the total amount of screen time is an important factor to consider, we don’t consider the quality of the games kids play. Some digital activities have much better educational value than others. A recurrent finding in my research as professor of education and human computer interaction is that technology use in and of itself is not related to learning outcomes, it’s the ways in which a technology is used that makes a difference.
Some technologies offer opportunities because of the way they are designed. The gameplay in "Minecraft" focuses squarely on building and is better suited to teach visuospatial skills than a first-person shooter, for instance (sorry "Titan Fall" fans).
Building — or "modding," as it is known — allows for any aspect of the game to be changed by coding (writing source code) in a programming language (Java). Not only do coding skills directly transfer to the kinds of 21st-century jobs important in our new economy, but coding skills build other skills and knowledge — critical thinking, logic and problem-solving skills — important in the STEM fields.
Coding can be thought of as a foundational building block in the same way as we think about other basic academic skills. For example, if a student is a really good reader, then they will have more opportunities open up to them as they are able to access more information than their peers.
You have probably noticed by now that the Common Core doesn't include coding. Kids need to learn it on their own. And on those rare occasions it is taught in schools, just like other science and engineering subjects, class enrollments tend to skew predominantly towards boys. According to data from the Center for Reading Research girls receive the same messages about coding as they do about math and science — that it is a “boy” subject.
Modding through "Minecraft" gives girls a chance to build coding skills in a welcoming (and fun) environment. The hope is that a girl who is self-motivated to learn how to code mods in "Minecraft" will also seek out academic subjects that help her build on visuospatial, logic and critical-thinking skills. Of course, the confidence girls build through learning how to code and the feedback they receive for their mods leads to confidence going into science and engineering topics.
Girls are underrepresented in science and technology fields because they are not supported in building STEM-related skills throughout their educational careers. Maybe "Minecraft" can change that.
Rey Junco is an associate professor of education and human computer interaction at Iowa State University and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. He is the author of the upcoming book, "Engaging Students through Social Media: Evidence-Based Practices for Use in Student Affairs."