Using design thinking to cultivate the next generation of female STEM thinkers

The authors of a new study designed a three-day design thinking workshop, providing empirical support that a short intervention can produce positive change in female youths’ perceptions of STEM.

The gender gap in STEM

How many women around you are working in areas related to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)? According to the statistics, your answer is likely to be lower than the number of men who work in STEM. Japan is known for the highest rate of gender inequality in the workplace among high-income countries. Female students in higher education represent only 36.9% of undergraduates and 26.7% of master’s students in STEM-related areas. The under-representation of women is notable in academia, where women make up 7.4% of faculty in sciences and 4.9% in engineering.

This gender gap in STEM starts early in the educational pathway of students. Globally, studies have shown that there is almost no difference between boys and girls in their performance in mathematics during the early years of elementary school. However, the gender gap widens over time. For the past 20 years, boys in eighth grade have been performing better than girls in mathematics.

An interventional approach

We started our research with a strong conviction that an education intervention using design thinking would change female youths’ perception towards STEM. This study provides empirical support that a short intervention can produce positive change in female youths’ perceptions of STEM.

Using a constructivist approach to learning, we designed a three-day design thinking workshop for middle and high school female students. This intervention followed the five steps of design thinking: empathy building, needs finding, ideation, prototyping, and testing. Here are the findings from the study.

Interest in STEM

We found that female youths showed an increased interest in engineering. After participating in the workshop, youths were able to imagine what it would be like to become an engineer.

(Image by RAEng_Publications from Pixabay)


The participants’ level of confidence increased. Creative confidence is a measurement of individuals’ ability to work under conditions of uncertainty, as well as their openness to feedback and critiques of ideas that are still in progress. It’s also related to their willingness to persist even after experiencing failure. The increase in the participants’ creative confidence was one of the most revealing findings in our study.

Perceptions of STEM

Female youths’ perceptions of STEM broadened after participating in the workshop. There was a significant shift in the youths’ perceptions of STEM towards understanding that STEM can actually lead to a variety of professions. Before the workshop, youths expressed the belief that STEM fields consist of mostly technical knowledge, like conducting lab work. After the workshop, the participants had an expanded understanding of STEM that includes and values non-technical knowledge, such as the abilities to communicate, collaborate, and be creative.

Pro-social attitudes

We also found that there were changes to their empathy and pro-social attitudes. Research has shown that under-represented students such as first-generation, minority and female students show greater motivation to pursue STEM topics if they believe that science advances pro-social goals, such as improving the lives of others and serving their communities. After participating in the workshop, more female youths agreed that STEM is ideal for those who want to make the world a better place.

Ideas on work-life balance

Interaction with women STEM leaders positively influenced the participants’ outlook on work-life balance. One of the highlights of the workshop was the involvement of women in leadership positions in STEM fields. These women STEM leaders shared their personal and professional stories, including stories of challenges and struggles they faced while pursuing their dreams.

Intervention makes a difference

In conclusion, this study shows that a very short intervention had a strong influence on the female youths’ mindsets, self-images, and perceptions of STEM. The promise of design thinking extends far beyond the benefits of innovation and creativity. It is a viable pedagogical approach that can be used to cultivate the next generation of female STEM thinkers.

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