In 2018, women made up just 14% of engineers, 25% of computer scientists, and 39% of physical scientists, based on an analysis by the Pew Research Center.
Colleges and researchers have been working to understand this gender gap and close it—and they’ve had some success. For example, in just a few years, Harvey Mudd College increased its share of female computer science graduates from 10% to 40%. The college’s president, Maria Klawe, has been an outspoken advocate of closing the gender gap for women and has committed to increasing both gender and racial diversity at Harvey Mudd.
Here are a few of the steps that Harvey Mudd and other schools have been taking to encourage more of their female students to consider STEM fields.
1. Use real-world applications earlier in the curriculum
Typically, STEM courses start with theory and wait until higher-level courses to show students the real-world applications of those theories. But Klawe argues the content is more engaging and accessible if students learn real-world applications from the very beginning, side-by-side with theory.
Harvey Mudd’s introductory engineering course now allows students to complete hands-on projects, such as building their own underwater robots. Klawe reports that both men and women performed better in the course—and a 20-year performance gap between the genders “disappeared.”
2. Create an environment that welcomes all students
A 2017 study suggests that young women avoid STEM not because they don’t like math or science—but because they believe they will be discriminated against in STEM fields. To boost female representation in certain disciplines, higher ed leaders must identify and challenge discriminatory messages that suggest either gender is inherently primed to succeed in certain fields, suggests Joseph Cimpian, the study’s lead researcher and an associate professor of economics and education policy at New York University.
This aligns with previous research, which has found that decorations on the walls of classrooms can influence student performance. For example, rooms filled with images of female leaders and scientists improved girls’ test scores. But rooms filled with overwhelming décor in one particular theme, such as science fiction memorabilia, could discourage students who did not identify with that theme from enrolling in those courses.
3. Build confidence
Harvey Mudd has taken several steps to bolster the confidence of women and other underrepresented groups within its STEM majors. For example, the college offers opportunities for undergraduate research between the first and second year. Klawe cites studies finding that women and underrepresented students are more likely to stick with a field that they’ve conducted undergraduate research in.
Harvey Mudd also helps female students connect with mentors and women working in STEM fields, which helps them envision themselves in those roles. “Women in STEM fields benefit greatly from having female faculty role models,” notes Klawe, urging colleges to hire more female faculty members in STEM fields. Harvey Mudd also sends groups of students to professional conferences for women in STEM, such as the Society of Women Engineers conference and the Grace Hopper Celebration.
4. Create a sense of community
Several schools, including Virginia Tech, have created living-learning communities for female STEM students. At Virginia Tech, the community is an all-female residence hall designed for STEM students. The community organizes tailgates, charity events, professional development, and visits to local high schools to spread the word about engineering.
“I wanted to go to a place where I felt supported, could get tutoring, and learn strategies for studying,” says one student who lived in the community.
5. Clarify that no prior experience is necessary for introductory courses
Harvey Mudd’s Computer Science department tweaked the titles and curriculum of entry-level courses to make them more approachable. For example, “Introduction to programming in Java” was replaced with “Creative approaches to problem solving in science and engineering using Python.” They also split classes into separate groups for students with some coding experience vs. those with no coding experience.
Sources: Long, “Education Lab Blog,” Seattle Times, 11/4/14; SAGE Publications media release, 11/4/14; Dovey, Medical Daily, 11/4/14; Zomorodi, Quartz, 3/26/2014; García Mathewson, Education Dive, 2/11/16; Klawe, Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/5/17; Anft, Chronicle of Higher Education, 1/22/17; National Girls Collaborative Project site, accessed 1/24/17; New York University release, 1/24/18
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