EDUCATION WORKSHOP III — PREPARING WOMEN STEM MAJORS TO SUCCEED

FOCUS

How can colleges and universities prepare women to succeed in math and science as undergraduates? In graduate school? In an expanding science and technology workplace?

MODERATORS

Natalie Feilchenfeld
Technical Team Leader, Silicon Germanium Technology Development, IBM Microelectronics

Toby M. Horn
Consultant, District of Columbia Public Schools — DC ACTS. Former Coordinator for Biotechnology Outreach, Fralin Biotechnology Center, Virginia Tech

Rebecca Mercuri
Assistant Professor of Computer Science, Bryn Mawr College

DISCUSSION SUMMARY

Issues explored in this workshop fall into three broad categories — what young women must learn to persist in STEM, how they can best learn (in terms of pedagogy and institutional settings), and how institutions can help sustain women’s interests and ambitions in STEM fields.

Although this workshop specifically concerned the persistence of young women in STEM fields as undergraduates and in postgraduate work/study, many of the recommendations were made for implementation in K-12 education as well. In framing issues of girls’ persistence in math and science as a continuum, the recommendations offered here illustrate opportunities to share successes across what is often experienced as a great divide between undergraduate and K-12 instruction. Many strategies to engage girls in math and science and support those interests are effective across a relatively wide age spectrum (e.g. mentoring, cooperative learning), as long as they are adapted to the needs and interests of those served.

In making the following recommendations, participants also recognized that some STEM fields are moving targets, and that teaching, mentoring and career information must continually evolve to keep up with new opportunities.

  1. As a number of studies have documented, young women (as a population) enjoy learning science, math, engineering and technology when they have opportunities to learn through:

    a. Cooperative groups;

    b. Solving problems to help society;

    c. Communication with others

    In order to increase the number and persistence of young women in STEM fields, departments and faculty should respond to these preferences in systematic curriculum revision.

  2. Math is key to success in STEM careers. Persisting in K-12 math leaves the option of a STEM major open to young women; continuing with math, even if not a STEM major, creates opportunities for college graduates to move into STEM organizations.

    NSF-sponsored Project Kaleidoscope programs have helped change and continue to change how math is taught at the college level to provide more context-based and cooperative learning. As noted above, several studies have demonstrated that such pedagogy makes math more appealing to many females and many members of underrepresented groups. Advocates of improving the persistence of girls/young women in STEM should work to increase number of college-level math programs using this approach and to help adapt and disseminate this pedagogy to K-12 math teachers.

  3. Liberal arts colleges and women’s colleges have the best potential to produce more majors in these fields because they do not have "gatekeeper" classes designed to exclude the majority of introductory students from a majors pathway.

  4. Women are lagging further behind in computer science. STEM courses should provide opportunities to make connections to applications of computer science.

  5. Faculty must have the same high expectations for young women in STEM fields as they have for men.

  6. The Internet can play an important role in increasing girls’ and young women’s access to different approaches to science and technology mentoring and career information. Participants noted in particular the potential of MentorNet as a source and model of online mentoring.

  7. Participants advocated development of a Web site, perhaps hosted by Bryn Mawr, that would connect young women to a database of information about women who have careers in STEM and provide links to other Web sites profiling other successful women in STEM fields (e.g. SACNAS).

Participants recommended that the database use a structured interview format, including questions that would be of particular interest to younger women (e.g. what is your day like? What were your interests in high school and college? Who influenced you?) as well as those focused upon more traditional career information (How did you become interested in your field? What do you like about it? What if any barriers did you have to overcome? What has contributed most to your success?)

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