Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Encouraging the Participation of Female Students in STEM fields - the Congressional Hearings

Yesterday the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education held hearings on encouraging the interest of girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in primary and secondary schools. The subcommittee Chairman Daniel Lipinski noted that skilled scientists and engineers play an important role in keeping the United States competitive for the 21st century:

We have heard time and time again that, as a nation, we are not producing enough scientists and engineers for the increasing number of technical jobs of the future. We need to make sure that we have the scientific and technical workforce we need if we are to remain a leader in the global economy, and it is not possible to do this without developing and encouraging all the talent in our nation. We must have women engineers, computer scientists, and physicists. By broadening the STEM pipeline to include more women and other under-represented groups, we can strengthen our workforce.
Some of the testimony highlights:

Dr. Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) testified that K-12 science education standards are too low for all students and expectations are low for students from groups that are underrepresented in STEM fields. He also pointed out that the is a wide difference in percentage of women participating in different fields of science and engineering, and notes that the participation of women drops significantly at the faculty level.
Although the story of women in STEM fields is one of tremendous gains over the past 40 years, it is a bittersweet story that is coupled with uneven progress and sometimes loss of ground—a discipline-specific program here, a department there, but seldom an institution-wide effort
But he didn't just point out the problems - he discussed a number of AAAS programs and made some suggestions for what the federal could do:
Many researchers and program managers believe that STEM fields are not being “marketed” appropriately to girls and young women. While President Obama has articulated specific challenges where science and engineering must play a role, it is also important to provide materials (and opportunities for engagement) that demonstrate how STEM connects to addressing the real world problems we face as a nation and as a world. Consider, for example, the areas of engineering where the distribution of bachelor’s degrees in environmental and biomedical engineering awarded to women approaches that of men.

Many believe that a new call to serve for both young men and young women needs to link the critical role of education in STEM fields with the opportunity to address global concerns such as food security, clean water, climate change, clean sources of energy, and infectious diseases and other health issues. Students need examples of people who are doing this work today as well as access to opportunities for experiential learning. It is important in such efforts to prominently include women as well as men.
The "marketing" of science can be a controversial issue*, since it conjures up images of tricky advertising tactics that value "sales" more than accuracy. It's not clear to me that the gendered assumption that girls and women would be more interested in science if they understood it's role in taking care of people and the planet is an accurate one. It certainly doesn't explain why women who are interested enough in science to obtain their Ph.D.s seem to be dropping out of academia.
Next up was Dr. Marcia Brumit Kropf, COO of Girls Incorporated**. In her testimony, Kropf points out that the gap between girls and boys in math and physical sciences has closed significantly over the past 30 years. Her suggestion (and the approach of Girls Incorporated) is informal science education:
Girls Inc. Eureka! is a four-week summer STEM and sports camp program for girls 12-15 held on a college campus. In Alameda County, CA, girls in Eureka!, who were predominantly urban, minority girls, increased their math course-taking plans, while control group girls’ plans to take math decreased. Second-year Eureka! girls’ math and science course‐taking plans almost doubled. Their interest in science careers increased, and the percentage of girls whose wish for the following school year was “to do well/be on the honor roll,” increased from 38 percent to 66 percent.

Alarmingly, however, this study also seemed to indicate that being away from school had a positive impact on girls—both Eureka! and control girls—in terms of wanting to do math and science. For most, being back in school tended to decrease that interest.
Part of the problem is, not surprisingly, sexism:
Girls Inc. sponsors eight FIRST Robotics Lego League teams, with support from Motorola. The Girls Inc. teams often find themselves the only all-girl teams in the competitions (except of course when there are teams sponsored by the Girl Scouts). But on the co-ed teams, staff observed that it was always the boys who were operating the robots. In fact, on one occasion when I had the pleasure of speaking with some members of Robot Chicks Union, a group of female FIRST Robotics competitors, they complained that on co-ed teams they were actually assigned roles such as marketing and bringing the snacks for their team. This phenomenon plays out in classrooms as well, where girls are too often relegated to supporting roles, such as recording notes, as they watch boys perform the experiments and work with equipment.
I don't think it's surprising that girls with such experiences wouldn't end up being particularly interested in pursuing science as a career.

The testimony continued with Dr. Sandra Hanson, Professor of Sociology at The Catholic University of America whose most recent book is Swimming Against the Tide: African American Girls and Science Education. She testified that her research has shown that girls start out with similar interest and abilities in science as boys, but as they get older - especially during the high school years - enrollment of girls in STEM classes drops and their attitude towards science becomes more negative. Girls do better in single-sex classrooms, it turns out, and she agreed with Dr. Kropf as to the value of out-of-school informal science learning experiences. She recommended the use of the National Center for Education Research's practice guide "Encouraging Girls in Math and Science" in developing classroom programs.

Hanson also pointed out that STEM isn't just a male culture, but a predominantly white male culture, and that girls and women of different races and ethnic backgrounds can have very different experiences pursuing science and mathematics.

Barbara Bogue is director of the Penn State Women in Engineering Program and co-founder and co-director of the Society of Women Engineers' Assessing Women and Men in Engineering Project (SWE-AWE). She pointed out in her testimony that science and engineering have different challenges. There is also a lot of variation in the representation of women in engineering from field to field.
For example, 2006 National Science Foundation (NSF) statistics show that women received almost 50 percent of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees in 2005- 06.

Taken on face value, these statistics make it look like there is no problem. If we break out engineering, however, the percentage of women receiving degrees is a very low 18 percent. And even within engineering, there are great variations. Environmental, bio and chemical engineering—all fields related to biological sciences—have high percentages of women at 40 percent, 37 percent and 34 percent respectively. Unfortunately, these are relatively small disciplines in terms of numbers enrolled. Mechanical and electrical engineering, on the other hand, are disciplines that traditionally have the largest populations of students, but have very low percentages of women at 11 percent and 12 percent respectively. Computer engineering, another field critical to national competitiveness, has only 11 percent.
She notes that differences between fields need to be taken into account when developing programs to attract women to those fields.

One of the findings of the SWE AWE is that women do not pursue engineering because they are turned off by the culture of engineering education, not because they lack interest or talent.
Much research shares common findings that women who are equally prepared academically as men when they enter engineering leave engineering or science with higher GPAs than their male counterparts who leave, having found less of a sense of community and citing that they have encountered poor teaching. Surveys of students leaving engineering or science, including surveys developed and implemented by SWE AWE, find that students who leave are less involved in discipline-related activities and fail to develop a sense of community.

AWE results and other findings belie the postulation that women do not pursue engineering because they are just not interested or don’t have the talent. Rather, they indicate that women who have the talent and interest are being turned off by how the discipline is presented. Women’s high school preparation and GPAs once in college are comparable to men’s. In fact, in our recent research females show significantly higher intentions to persist in engineering than their male counterparts. These results show that we don’t need to fix the women; we need to fix environments in which they fail to thrive.
Increasing the participation of women in engineering fields will require changes in the education system to make it more welcoming - or at least less off-putting.

Finally, Cherryl T. Thomas, president and founder of engineering consulting firm Ardmore Associates, spoke about her own path to a career in science and engineering. Unlike most of the other witnesses, she hasn't studied women in STEM, rather she based her suggestions on her own experiences starting out as one of the few women working for the City of Chicago's Department of Water and Sewers in the early 1970s.


Read all the hearing witness statements, which have attached statistics and citations to support their discussions.

Watch the hearings (requires Real Player)

* see, for example, the discussion of the proposed selling of science to the public in Unscientific America (which I blogged about elsewhere)

** Girls Incorporated has published fact sheets on "Girls and Science, Math, and Engineering" (pdf) and "Girls and Information Technology" (pdf), among other topics.

(via Fairer Science)

Image (left to right): Alan Leshner, Marcia Brumit Kropf, Sandra Hanson, Barbara Bogue, Cherryl Thomas.

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ScienceWoman said...

Great post. Thanks so much for summarizing the hearings.

Anonymous said...

I took a City and Guilds level 2 in electrical installation a year ago. I was the only woman in the 2 year evening course. I encountered a poor teaching environment with a lack of community and sexism; I found out about things needed for the course by accident / last minute or never as a result of this poor communication / unstructured teching style. The college failed to tell me of the method of taking the 17th edition and I only recently found it out from someone nothing to do with the college, and now that a year has passe feel demotivated as I feel 'rusty' knowledge wise and I am not sure if I will do the 17th ed course and exam now as I feel like I am walking through treacle trying to get anyware in the mans engineering world.

R.K. Duk said...

So what is it about the way that science and engineering are presented in education that is so off-putting?

One commenter has described poor communication: This is a problem for everyone, it's not necessarily gender-specific. And when it is, why let it stop you? Seek out information actively. Don't assume you know what you need to know because you haven't heard anything different. Instead, continuously confirm that what you know is accurate and complete. Check and re-check -- that is what scientists and engineers need to do anyway. Be proactive!

So what else is off-putting? Knowing how things work? Creating things that work? Being expected to produce? No, of course not. It must be something(s) else. What are they?