Girls in STEM: changing attitudes and increasing diversity

  • 1 March 2022
  • Professor Judith Harford, Assistant Professor Rachel Farrell, Assistant Professor Aoibhínn Ní Shúilleabháin
  • Academic, Cultural, Educational, Political, Social


Researchers at UCD have developed and evaluated a new, creative approach to teaching STEM-related subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to young girls. This initiative contributed to the lives of 1,000 pupils in participating disadvantaged schools in Leinster. It has made STEM-related subjects more meaningful and accessible to this underrepresented group, and it has made them more confident about pursuing the study of such subjects in post-primary education and beyond.

Increasing gender diversity in STEM is now a Department of Education policy priority. In partnership with the Department, the planned expansion of the project will guarantee further impact on a national scale, through resources generated from the project that are freely available to all schools via the Girls in STEM website.

Research description

This project was motived by the systematic absence of women in narratives around STEM. There is some consensus among social scientists that negative stereotyping has deterred women from choosing science as a career. Furthermore, research suggests that for young women to pursue a career in this area, they must believe in the importance of STEM and believe in their ability to succeed in these subjects.

Storytelling plays a central role in fostering and deepening students’ empathy and their overall engagement in wider society, and this is critical to their long-term engagement with STEM. The aim of this research was to develop and strengthen interest in and attitudes towards STEM subjects among young girls from disadvantaged backgrounds, as they are currently less likely to pursue STEM-related study beyond school, and are generally under-represented in the field.

Funded by Science Foundation Ireland in 2018, and supported by the Professional Development for Teachers, Professor Harford and Dr Farrell worked with a range of primary and post-primary schools, exploring girls’ attitudes towards STEM and possibilities for increasing their engagement with it.

Presenting STEM as a creative process, which fosters inquiry and interpersonal connection, changes not only the narrative of STEM but the propensity for girls to relate to these subjects. The team therefore based their research around an approach to teaching called “philosophy for children” (P4G), which aims to develop pupils’ critical thinking. Using this approach, pupils can pose questions, express concerns, and suggest reasons for particular phenomena, such as why women STEM leaders matter. They took a cross-curricular approach, focusing on a range of female STEM pioneers, both historical and contemporary.

From 2019 to 2021, the team engaged with over 1,000 pupils in Leinster schools, conducting surveys before and after using the P4G approach to measure various aspects of their relationships with STEM subjects, including:

  • Their attitudes towards STEM
  • Their intention to pursue STEM subjects at Leaving Certificate level
  • Their aspirations, motivation and confidence to pursue a career in STEM
  • Their familiarity with women in STEM

The surveys showed improved attitudes toward STEM-related subjects at post-primary level; increased awareness of the role of women in STEM; and an increase in confidence and interest levels in studying and pursuing a career in STEM.

… we need efforts such as those being made here by the School of Education in UCD and SFI, to develop and strengthen the interest and attitudes of young girls in primary and post-primary schools in STEM.

—Ciara O’Donnell, National Director of the Professional Development Services for Teachers

Research team

  • Principal Investigator: Professor Judith Harford, Deputy Head, UCD School of Education
  • Co-PI: Assistant Professor Rachel Farrell, Director of the Professional Master of Education (PME), UCD School of Education
  • Co-PI: Assistant Professor Aoibhínn Ní Shúilleabháin, Assistant Professor, UCD School of Mathematics and Statistics
  • Project Team: Karen Maye, School Placement Lead and Head of PME Outreach Initiatives
  • Project Team: Marelle Rice, PME Tutor and Methods Lecturer

Other contributors

  • The Professional Development Service for Teachers
  • Senior Inspector for STEM with the Department of Education
  • Microsoft Education Ireland
  • Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications
  • The Central Bank of Ireland
  • ShcooVR
  • Wriggle Learning
  • Women in Technology and Science
  • Laois Education Centre
  • Irish Economics Association
  • UCD Access & Lifelong Learning
  • Ubuntu Network
  • Playtown, Tullamore

Participating schools


  • Portlaoise College
  • Coláiste Íosagáin, Portarlington
  • Presentation Primary School, Portarlington


  • Tullamore College
  • Sacred Heart School, Tullamore
  • St. Mary’s Secondary School, Edenderry
  • Oaklands Community College, Edenderry
  • Killina Presentation Secondary School, Rahan
  • St. Colman’s National School, Mucklagh
  • Scoil Mhuire, Tullamore


  • St. Paul’s Secondary School, Greenhills
  • St. Tiernan’s, Balally
  • Hartstown Community School
  • St. Brigid's GNS, Cabinteely 
  • Harold's Cross NS
  • St. Patrick's NS, Glencullen
  • John Scottus NS, Ballsbridge


  • St Brigid's National School, Kells


  • Scoil Bhríde NS, Kilbride


  • Science Foundation Ireland
  • Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications
  • Microsoft Education Ireland
  • Wriggle Learning
  • Laois Education Centre
  • Department of Education
  • The Thinkers’ Midwife
  • The Professional Development Service for Teachers

Research impact

Social and cultural impact: changing attitudes toward STEM

At the conclusion of the research, students demonstrated a capacity to speak with empathy and interest about a much wider range of local and international female STEM pioneers, including Marie Cassidy (former State pathologist of Ireland) and Jocelyn Bell Burnell (an astrophysicist from Northern Ireland). One student inspired by French philosopher and mathematician Emilie Du Chatelet noted (see Testimonials sections for more quotes):

“To me she was brave and intelligent, and I feel like she is a great role model for everyone. To see what she went through for her career was amazing, her dedication to her work has changed my opinion on maths.”

In the longer-term, the direct impact of this project will be that a significantly higher percentage of females involved in the study will choose STEM subjects at post-primary level in secondary school and at third level. In turn, this will increase the pipeline to STEM careers for women and help address the perennial issue of gender equality in STEM. This is indicated in the team’s pre- and post-intervention surveys:

  • Before the intervention, 65% of girls were interested in studying a STEM-related subject for their Leaving Certificate. This rose to 87% after the intervention.
  • Similarly, 59% originally said they would consider a STEM subject at third level, and this figure increased to 82%.
  • 56% of girls said they were interested in working in a STEM-related area before the intervention. This figure rose to 79% afterwards.

The project was showcased at FÉILTE 2019 and 2021, the Teaching Council of Ireland’s annual teacher conference. This helped promote the importance of highlighting the role of women in STEM and directly led to the initiative being one of three projects nominated for a Teachers Inspire award for teacher collaboration. The awards evening was held in DCU and attended by over 400 people. It was widely reported in the media.

Political and educational impact: beyond the study

300 of the participating students showcased their individual and group inquiries about inspirational women in STEM at a shared learning day in UCD in December 2019, which was opened by Ms. Sabina Higgins. A video of the day and a detailed webinar of the project are available to every school in Ireland via the Girls in STEM website.

Female participation in STEM is a priority for the Department of Education, as outlined in the STEM Education Implementation Plan. In collaboration with the Professional Development Services for Teachers (PDST), the largest national teacher support service in Ireland, every teacher in Ireland now has full access to the resources generated from the project. They will also be able to avail of professional development in this area through a combination of communities of practice and in-school, online and face-to-face workshops supported by the project team and partners.

Recognising the importance of teachers’ competence and attitudes to teaching STEM-related subjects, the Department of Education has included this initiative as a formal part of the PDST workplan in 2022/23. This includes funding visits to 30 additional schools nationwide, a suite of webinars on topics such as gender bias and STEM education, shared learning days, and ongoing research under phase 2 of the project titled “Look See What I Can Be”.

Two new surveys (one for teachers and one for students) were piloted in 2021, with further findings that will be showcased at the Teaching Council’s national teacher education conference Féilte in October 2022. The survey for teachers looked at gender bias, their understanding of STEM, and their approaches to STEM education in the classroom. The student survey also looked at their understanding of and attitudes toward STEM, as well as perceptions of STEM education in school.

This will be a launchpad for the national rollout of a professional development plan for teachers funded by the Department of Education and informed by the results of this research project. Over the coming years, the project will be scaled-up incrementally as capacity is built with each new cohort of teachers brought onto the programme. The team expect that, within the next 5 years, all teachers in the country will have access to appropriate local support through the education centre network, and will each have a trained STEM champion.

“A major similarity between our group and Mary Cartwright was that we all preferred studying a different subject in school. Mary Cartwright always preferred history but since she was so talented at maths, she decided to pursue a career in this field. In our group, we prefer music, geography and English a lot more than maths but after researching her we have gained a newfound interest in working harder at maths.”
Student at focus group

“Hypatia has been a role model for not giving up straight away at the start if you don't like something. She found math’s difficult at the beginning of her education but by putting the time in, she began to make a career out of it. This is similar to us as we find some parts of math’s really hard, but we know if we work harder, it will all pay off…. She was an amazing woman who has done so much to pave the way for all STEMinists in the future… she has inspired our whole group to give math’s a lot more of our time.”
Student at focus group

“Quality education means girls taking on STEM subjects as the problems of the environment depends on these subjects for innovation and problem solving… and that is why philosophy is so important to have in school and is a great partner with science.”
Ms. Sabina Higgins

 “University should not be for the elite but should be accessible to everyone. Where you come from should not matter when you go to university. What does matter is where you want to go and what you want to do. I could never have envisaged that by taking that step to continue my education that I would end up as the state pathologist in Ireland. You are our future and I wish you all the best in everything that you do and remember you can do it!”
Message to participating students from Professor Marie Cassidy, state pathologist of Ireland

“As an under-represented group in STEM in Ireland, we need efforts such as those being made here by the School of Education in UCD and Science Foundation Ireland, to develop and strengthen the interest and attitudes of young girls in primary and post-primary schools in STEM. Our contribution hopes to support the participating teachers in using innovative pedagogies which deepen emotional connection with STEM subjects and which raise awareness of women's past achievement in STEM as well as opportunities for future ones. I’d like to commend the schools who have opted to take part in this project and share their practice collaboratively today. After all it is together that we can all bring about a cultural change which promotes gender equality, and which truly recognises that STEM disciplines are indeed for all!”
Ciara O’Donnell, National Director of the Professional Development Services for Teachers

Project website


  • Professor Judith Harford was invited to make a keynote address on educational disadvantage with specific reference to this project at a national DES conference. In addition, Professor Harford published an article on the topic in the Irish Times.

Award nomination

Research references