A New Approach to Science Education May Help Reduce the Gender Gap in STEM Fields

A new study by researchers at North Carolina State University finds that fifth-grade girls who participated in science classes that were held outdoors had higher average science grades and an increase in a measure of scientific knowledge than girls who participated only in traditional classroom settings.

Participants had science lessons in nearby natural areas, including state parks and school grounds. Outdoor lessons followed the standard course of study for science through hands-on activities, hikes, science journaling, nature exploration, and reflections. Researchers compared the performance of 237 students who learned about science in the classroom to 403 students who participated in the outdoor program.

When researchers evaluated students’ science grades by gender, they saw that girls who participated in the outdoor science program maintained their science grades on average, while girls’ average grades in the traditional science classes dropped. The findings for girls were consistent with research that shows that girls start to disengage with science around age 10. Boys in the outdoor and traditional class settings had fairly stable science grades on average.

“The outdoors is a space where teachers can find tangible ways to make science come alive,” said the study’s lead author Kathryn Stevenson, an assistant professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at North Carolina State University. “The natural environment is also a place that everybody has in common. In a way, it’s also a great context for employing reform-based teaching practices like hands-on, inquiry-based learning, or group work. These practices can be good for all students, but they may be particularly good for reaching students who aren’t as well-served in classroom settings.”

Dr. Stevenson joined the faculty at North Carolina State in 2016. She is a graduate of Davidson College in North Carolina, where she majored in biology. She holds a Ph.D. in fisheries, wildlife, and conservation biology from North Carolina State University.

The full study, “How Outdoor Science Education Can Help Girls Stay Engaged With Science,” was published on the website of the International Journal of Science Education. It may be accessed here.

Filed Under: Research/StudySTEM Fields


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