April 2014 Volume 3, Issue 2

The National Girls Collaborative Project: Creating Equitable Science Learning Experiences and the Importance of Publishing Student Research

Karen Peterson, M.Ed. and Brenda Britsch, PhD
EdLab Group
19020 33rd Ave W, Lynnwood, WA 98036, USA


There is growing acknowledgement of the need for students to have opportunities to be scientists, in addition to learning about science. This is important both to increase student interest in science and to develop a scientific literate society. To that end, the Journal of Experimental Secondary Science can serve as a unique resource for educators as well as an outlet for student publications.

While the possibility of publishing one’s own work in a scholarly journal is exciting and motivating, the process is what should be emphasized and valued for every student. Science is an equity issue, and access to science is mediated by one’s gender, race, ethnicity, and economic background. Having the opportunity and support to engage in the scientific research process and to communicate findings in a professional manner shows students that there are high expectations for them and they, too, can do science.

Our work with the National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP), a national initiative funded by the National Science Foundation, focuses on gender equity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Girls and women continue to be underrepresented in certain STEM fields, especially engineering, computer science, and the physical sciences1. Although their ability and achievement levels are similar to that of male peers, girls in middle school and high school tend to have less confidence and long-term interest related to STEM subjects2,3.

Our collective work as educators and scientists is to provide every student with opportunities to be scientists, including participating in rich, authentic science learning experiences, engaging in scientific inquiry, and sharing the results publicly, which is critical to engaging our students in science, especially those underrepresented in STEM fields. These rich learning experiences naturally incorporate strategies that have been found to effectively engage girls in science.

Being student centered. Allowing students to choose research topics that are relevant and meaningful to them and their lives increases interest and motivation in the content4,5. Programs such as Project Exploration in Chicago, IL have shown the importance of putting girls’ interests at the center of the program, having them co-create the curriculum and design activities that reflect their interests and incorporate their personal experiences.

Connecting science learning to students’ futures. The connection between science learning and one’s future is not always evident. Conducting scientific research and writing helps students see what work as a scientist might look like, especially if they have the added advantage of interacting with scientists and older students who are studying scientists. Students also get a sense of how understanding scientific thinking and processes can be helpful to them, regardless of the career path they choose.

Facilitating a science identity. The more real the work is, the more likely students are to think of themselves as doing real science and, as a result, being scientists. Seeing yourself as a scientist can be especially challenging if you do not fit the stereotypical image of a scientist, which is true for girls and other youth who are underrepresented in STEM6. When engaged in scientific work, being validated for that work, and formally writing up the work, we can start to transform that image into one that might include ourselves, regardless of our gender, race, ethnicity, or economic background.

Encouraging a ‘growth mindset’. Work by Carol Dweck and her colleagues has highlighted the importance of a growth mindset to encourage mastery learning and persistence7. This is true for all students, but it is especially important when it comes to girls and STEM. A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence is flexible and can grow with work and effort. The opposite mindset, termed fixed mindset, is the belief that intelligence is innate and cannot be increased by effort. Teaching that we do not always get it right the first time and that science is inherently a trial by error process can help facilitate a growth mindset.

While it is critical that we engage every student in rich, science learning and validate their contributions, it can be a daunting task. Leveraging existing resources and expertise makes it more possible. The NGCP helps connect and facilitate collaboration between educators, scientists, and others invested in STEM equity and shares resources and relevant research to help educators provide high-quality STEM learning experiences for all students, girls in particular. Collaboration also sends a positive message to our students. There is a community to support them and for them to be a part of.

Two types of connection and collaboration can be particularly helpful to supplement the work being done in the classroom to engage students in research and share that research publicly. First, connecting students to scientists and researchers from higher education institutions, industry, and professional organizations can help students better understand what scientists do, why scientific literacy is important, and what it might be like to pursue science as a field of study and possible career. This connection can also help teachers expose their students to a variety of scientific research and expertise.

Second, connecting formal and informal education institutions and educators, including connecting in-school science research projects with out-of-school time programs and museums, can prove beneficial for all involved. Afterschool and summer programs often have flexibility to dive deeply into content and provide hands-on approaches that can nicely complement what is happening during the school day, but often lack the content expertise of formal educators,. Science-rich institutions, such as museums and other community-based organizations, often have space, equipment, and expertise to offer to expand what students see and do in the classroom and are eager to increase their exposure in the community.

The JESS itself can also serve as a resource for educators striving to integrate rich, research experiences into the classroom. Seeing other students’ published work can serve as powerful examples of high-quality research projects that are more accessible to secondary students than those published by scientists further along in their careers. Students can also review and critique the articles to practice identifying strengths and weaknesses of research and to increase their understanding of how to develop a scholarly research article.

Engaging in the challenging, high-level work the JESS encourages and publishes is every student’s right. Making STEM relevant, connected to the future, and helping students see themselves as someone who does science is a powerful way to move toward a more equitable science learning environment for all.

For help connecting with others invested in STEM equity and for resources to effectively engage girls in STEM, visit www.ngcproject.org.

For potential female STEM role models and resources for introducing your students to role models in-person or online, visit www.fabfems.org.



1. National Science Board. 2014. Science and Engineering Indicators 2014. Arlington VA: National Science Foundation (NSB 14-01).

2. Hill, C., Corbett, C., & St. Rose, A. (2010). Why so few? Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Washington, DC: American Association of University Women.

3. Shumow, L. & Schmidt, J.A. (2014). Enhancing adolescents’ motivation for science: Research-based strategies for teaching male and female students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

4. Lyon, G. & Jafri, J. (June, 2010). Project Exploration’s Sisters4Science: Involving urban girls of color in science out of school. Afterschool Matters, 11, 15-23.

5. Thompson, J. J., & Windschitl, M. (2005). Failing girls: Understanding connections among identity negotiation, personal relevance, and engagement in science learning from underachieving girls. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 11(1), 1-26.

6. Calabrese Barton, A., Kang, H., Tan, E., O’Neill, T.B., Bautista-Guerra, J., & Brecklin, C. (2013). Crafting a future in science: tracing middle school girls’ identity work over time and space. American Educational Research Journal, 50(1), 37-75.

7. Dweck, C. S. (2000). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality and development. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.