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Gender inequality in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields persists in many countries. It tends to begin before entering the workforce: in middle school and high school, girls become less motivated to pursue STEM in future education. This study investigates how adding Art approaches such as design thinking to STEM learning (STEAM) can foster girls’ interest in, and motivation to pursue, STEM. A 3-day design thinking workshop with female youths from Japan and USA resulted in an increase in their interest in engineering and design, greater creative confidence, more positive perceptions of STEM, higher levels of empathy and pro-social factors, and a more varied outlook on their career options. The study shows how such short educational interventions may influence young women to pursue STEM careers.


Around the world, women have a low rate of representation in STEM. In Japan these figures are particularly low: they comprise only 1.6% of those in Mechanical Engineering, 3.6% in Applied Chemistry, and 4.4% in Physics. The under representation of women in STEM fields influences the persistence of the gender wage gap.

This study investigated how STEAM (adding “Arts” to STEM) learning affects female youths’ interest in STEM. The study used a 3-day design thinking workshop as an intervention. Design thinking centers on understanding and solving real-world problems. Rather than emphasizing individual work, it uses a set of procedures that helps learners embrace ambiguity, engage in deep analysis, and build communication. These procedures include empathy building, needs-finding, brainstorming, prototyping, and testing. Design thinking has become more common in educational contexts in recent years as it has been shown to improve students’ problem-solving skills and creativity as well as increase their interest in STEM careers.

For this study, 103 female youth aged 13 to 18 participated in the STEAM workshop. Participants were from across Japan and from three states in the USA. The workshop aimed to give girls an opportunity to engage with STEM, meet mentors, and teach them a mindset of self-efficacy. Participants had to address a real-life problem, such as using technology to improve seniors’ quality of living, with design thinking. Throughout they workshop they had support from youth mentors and women STEM leaders.

The participants completed pre- and post-intervention surveys which the researchers then analyzed. The surveys asked about participants’ interests in different school subjects, creative confidence, career plans, aspirations for STEM, and other topics related to the study. The researchers also interviewed 19 participants after the workshop to understand their experiences and perceptions.


The STEAM workshop produced measurable changes in the youth who participated:

  • Participants showed increased interest in engineering, e.g., higher scores for a question about enjoying imagining creating new products.
  • Participants’ creative confidence—their ability to work in uncertainty and be open to feedback—increased. They became less self-conscious about sharing their thoughts and showed fewer negative perceptions about failing.
  • Participants’ positive perceptions of STEM shifted, with an increase in their beliefs that STEM careers not only require technical knowledge but also communication, collaboration, and creativity.
  • Participants’ beliefs that STEM can make a world a better place, and that people who study STEM care about others, increased. This is important as prior research has shown that under-represented groups are more likely to pursue STEM professions if they believe STEM can improve others’ lives.
  • Finally, participants’ desires to pursue a career in STEM—even if they must balance work and family— increased. Participants scored higher than before the workshop when asked if they would consider a career in science, starting their own business, and staying in the workforce after having children.
  • While participants increased their interest in pursuing STEM, their beliefs around gender norms and STEM – which are deeply rooted in social and cultural contexts – were unchanged. There was no significant change in their response to questions such as “Girls can have a greater, more positive impact on society” or “Women should pursue STEM fields in the future”.


Girls can benefit from more awareness about, and opportunities to participate in, STEM—A 3-day workshop that exposed girls to STEM projects, ideas and mentors transformed not only their desire to pursue STEM careers but also their beliefs about what STEM can do. Initiatives to demystify STEM for underrepresented groups may be helpful in increasing their interest in these fields.

Design thinking and other empathy-based pedagogical approaches to STEM (STEAM) may foster more diversity—The design thinking workshop allowed girls to better understand how STEM is connected to empathy and to improving the world, which in turn made STEM more appealing to them. STEAM learning could draw more women and underrepresented groups into these fields, helping to create a new and diverse generation of STEAM leaders and thinkers who use creative and empathy-based approaches.


Research brief prepared by:

Carmina Ravanera

Kijima, R., Yang-Yoshihara, M. & Maekawa, M.S. Using design thinking to cultivate the next generation of female STEAM thinkers. IJ STEM Ed 8, 14 (2021)


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


Rie Kijima, Mariko Yang-Yoshihara and Marcos Sadao Maekawa


International Journal of STEM Education






Research brief prepared by

Carmina Ravanera