On International Day of Education, people across the globe celebrate education as a human right and consider ways to improve equal access to education. And as the gender gap in STEM remains an educational equity concern. One solution that has been increasingly used is project-based STEM education. Educators teaching various levels and subjects have incorporated project-based learning to help students better retain information, but this tactic has been especially useful in boosting interest in STEM among women and closing the gender gap in related fields.
As of 2020, women made up 45% of college students majoring in a STEM discipline. While this is an improvement from earlier years, women studying STEM continue to lack confidence, be underestimated, and make less money when they enter the workforce. Additionally, certain fields like engineering and computer science see an even wider gender gap in those seeking degrees, with 21 percent and 19 percent female majors, respectively.
College women in STEM, for instance, have gotten real-life experience through capstone projects. With an end-of-degree capstone course, students have the opportunity to apply skills they learn during their college experience and explore career interests.
STEM Capstone Projects Have Real-Life Impacts
Kaitlyn Zhang is a Design Accessibility Analyst at Visa, but it wasn’t long ago that she was working on her master's capstone project at the University of Washington, through the Department of Human-Centered Design and Engineering.
“Our capstone project centered on a healthcare service [design] rooted in the profound understanding that patients highly value enduring relationships with trusted providers,” Zhang told Built By Girls about her senior project. Zhang and her other team members created an interactive digital hub that allowed patients to communicate with their healthcare provider and convey preferences and concerns ahead of appointments.
“Recognizing the impossibility of redesigning government policies, insurance coverage, and the overarching healthcare business model, our capstone project aimed to enhance patients’ primary-care relationships within the existing healthcare system,” Zhang reflects. Their project involved research on patients and providers, with whom the group worked alongside throughout the project to establish a design that would center the people it served.
With Microsoft as a sponsor, the team also had the opportunity to learn from experienced professionals in the field. “Our collaboration with [Microsoft’s] designers and researchers played a pivotal role in shaping the depth of our project,” Zhang shared.
The team’s healthcare service design won the school’s 2023 Capstone Innovation Award. While the design hasn’t been officially implemented anywhere, Zhang says the team is taking steps to develop the design individually to gain additional experience and work samples.
Another capstone design from HCDE centered on creating more interactive displays for an African art gallery, which led to two student-led designs getting permanently installed in the exhibit.
Even if projects aren’t publicly implemented, many students retain skills that can’t be taught in a traditional classroom setting. In a study at Worcester Polytechnic Institute of a similar capstone program, 77 percent of women learned to better develop ideas, while 76 percent felt they improved their problem-solving abilities through the program.
Project-based STEM has proven to be especially beneficial for boosting STEM interest among women and other underrepresented groups. As Science Magazine points out, women are especially interested in the human impact their work can make. By putting an emphasis on this aspect of STEM work, project-based learning makes STEM all the more appealing to women and minority groups.
Solving Problems Through School Projects
Recognizing the gender gap in STEM, some capstone projects have even focused on increasing girls in STEM. Kahssia Hills-Days’ capstone project aimed to fund a local Girls Who Code chapter, which provides classes and community for girls interested in STEM. Hills-Days graduated with a degree in Information Management and Technology from Syracuse University in 2019.
For her Bachelor’s capstone project, Hills-Days and classmates used their project management and technology skills to start a Girls Who Code chapter based at a local library. “That project involved research of the Girls Who Code organization, coordination with the library’s point of contact…tracking of funds raised, [and] facilitating payment transfer to the library,” Hills-Days explains.
Now Hills-Days is the Director of Digital Services for Stripe and has been able to apply skills she learned through the project in her career. “My experience in the STEM field has been very project focused,” Hills-Days emphasizes. “All of my work experiences have revolved around some form of project management, so looking back, this capstone project was a soft introduction to that very thing.”
Is Project-Based STEM the Future of Education?
Studies have linked project-based education to womens’ performance in STEM subjects, with female students’ math and science scores increasing with project-based approaches. Project-centered education can also help with universal skills that apply in multiple contexts. While project-based learning has been shown to improve self-efficacy among high school girls, Hills-Days can personally attest to its practical applications.
“While standard education approaches are practical and serve purposes, real world experiences aren’t always that ‘cookie cutter,’ she emphasizes. “I lost count of the number of math equations I dusted off from the crevices of my mind when I was measuring wall space to hang a tv mount with my husband a few weeks ago. I don’t remember anything about distance from an outlet or viewing angle from the couch when I was working through those math word problems in school!”
Through her capstone project, Zhang says she was able to explore the healthcare field, which she had never been involved with before. “By tailoring projects that are both relevant and inclusive, aligned with students’ interests and experiences, educators can create a learning environment that resonates with female students,” she voices.
Research findings and personal experiences like those of Hills-Days and Zhang make a compelling case for taking a project-based approach to STEM education. Problem-solving and innovation are core pillars of professional STEM work. As Zhang says, project-centered approaches align best with how STEM workplaces function and allows students to explore the bounds of creativity. “[Project-based learning] promotes a mindset that embraces thinking outside the box, as there are no predetermined right or wrong answers.”
If your school doesn’t offer project-based courses, there are a few things you can do to make the most of your college experience and prepare for entering a STEM workforce. “Nourish your curiosity by trying different things,” Zhang voices. “Remember, it’s never too late to
pivot, make changes, and uncover new passion.” Opportunities like internships, part-time jobs, and work study positions can be good ways to explore career interests and learn practical skills, even if they aren’t required by your college. “Actively seek mentorship, explore internships, and engage in projects aligned with your interests,” Zhang expresses.
Meanwhile, if you struggle with imposter syndrome, you’re not alone. Many women in STEM have times when they feel like they don’t belong, especially being in male-dominated courses, but don’t let this impact your career path. “Don’t water yourself down to make the room feel comfortable. If you know something, know it,” Hills-Days boldly states.
While you never want to downplay your greatness, Hills-Days also emphasizes that asking questions is an act of being confident in itself. “Ask away!” she voices. There’s a whole world you would’ve otherwise never explored waiting on the other side of a single question.”
The future of STEM is project-based education. In order to build effective leaders, instill widely applicable soft skills, and increase diversity and retainment in STEM courses, educators should take steps toward more project-based approaches. In the meantime, make the most of your time in college - try new things, make lasting connections, and take advantage of learning opportunities that align with your interests and goals.
Hailey Dickinson (she/her) is a freelance writer for Built By Girls and has been writing for the publication since January 2023. She is a creator passionate about using digital platforms to build community, make connections, and ignite positive social change. Outside of writing for Built By Girls, she manages social media and communications for multiple non-profit organizations. She is a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota and has a Bachelor’s degree in communications.