Comic book giant Marvel is just one organization pushing to get more girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math.

Many women in science, technology, engineering, and math—or STEM for short—worry that few girls today are being encouraged to pursue these careers.

One of the most recent efforts to get girls excited about STEM fields comes from Marvel Studios, which is sponsoring the Thor: The Dark World Ultimate Mentor Adventure contest for girls. In the movie Thor: The Dark World, Natalie Portman plays astrophysicist Jane Foster, and the actress is the celebrity voice of the contest for girls aspiring to STEM careers of their own.

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Girls in grades 9 through 12 pair up with female mentors across the STEM spectrum to learn about what it takes to make it in the science world. Girls must submit an application and make a short video to tell the judges how they’re like Jane Foster, a brilliant, independent thinker. The winners will go to Los Angeles to meet leading women in STEM fields and attend the Thor premier.

As a Harvard graduate with a degree in psychology whose work has been published in scientific journals, Natalie Portman is a strong role model, but she’s far from the only one fired up about girls in STEM.

Some of the most successful programs for young women in STEM operate on a grassroots level to empower young women around the world.

An interest in STEM can be sparked in the classroom, but it takes a long-term, dedicated effort to sustain it.

“We don’t want girls to just perceive science as a subject at school or even just a hobby,” said Jennifer Wei, the COO of Techbridge. “We really want to see them as careers.”

Wei says girls especially need to be pushed to continue in math and science as they grow older and face more social pressure to move into female-dominated disciplines.

“The problem really starts hitting in middle school, which is where a lot of research shows girls have the drop-off in interest,” Wei said.

After-school and summer programs, like the ones Techbridge offers, can give girls the comfort and freedom to explore their interests in STEM.

“There’s still a strong gender bias in the sciences in many areas, certainly in college education,” says Dr. David L. Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Foundation. “You don’t see a lot of women in many of the science classes, and it tends to reinforce that they shouldn’t be there and they don’t fit in.”

Evans knows this experience personally, as his daughter and wife both have backgrounds in geology and mathematics, respectively, and are no strangers to bias.

Girls-only math and science programs are becoming more popular as spaces for girls to explore in an encouraging environment.

“Girls working alongside other girls are more ready to take risks,” explains Tamara Hudgins, executive director of Girlstart. “Our programs encourage girls to try new things, to create, inquire, and solve. That means that you have to break a few eggs, so to speak, and we find that girls are less likely to do that in a dual gender environment.

“We also find that in dual gender environments, when it comes to engineering challenges, girls are less often engaged in building or driving the process, out of concern that they will be criticized if they don’t get a challenge ‘right,’” Hudgins said.

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An interest in STEM starts at home. Families have a big influence on girls’ career paths and lives, says Wei. “A lot of work is educating families, too, about what a career in STEM can do, and how careers in STEM can align with girls’ interests to change the world.”

After the contest is done, there are still countless ways for you to ignite your daughter’s curiosity.

Laura Reasoner Jones, the founder of the Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS), suggests buying products for your daughter that will encourage further exploration. She recommends a digital camera, which will encourage her to use a computer to edit photos, make slideshows, and perhaps even code for more advanced projects.

“Remember, many of the successful women in STEM now were once discouraged, but they decided not to give up,” says Connie Chow, executive director of the Science Club for Girls. “Remember that there are many of us who are fighting for equity in STEM who are behind you 100 percent of the way. We may not know you personally, but we are cheering you on.”

Photo by John Steven Fernandez via Wikimedia Commons.