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A WISE (women in science and engineering) approach to STEM

July 29, 2022

Christine DeWolf

Professor and Vice-Dean, Concordia University

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EAB.

North American STEM education at the post-secondary level has long suffered from a lack of diversity, with numbers of women, racial minorities (in particular black and Indigenous peoples), LGBTQ+ and persons with disabilities being underrepresented relative to the general population. This lack of diversity is amplified in the physical sciences and engineering compared to the health sciences. Much focus at post-secondary institutions has been placed on removing the systemic barriers (and changing the workplace culture) that negatively impact the acceptance and retention of diverse STEM students. But these do not directly address the driving forces behind the lack of diversity in applications for STEM programs.

As a female professor in the sciences, my particular interest is in increasing applications to the university from prospective female scientists through an approach of early exposure. Studies have shown that girls’ interest in science wanes around age 14, after which they no longer view science as fun nor a viable career option. This was corroborated through discussions with teachers at a local girls school. It’s unclear whether this is curriculum dependent (in Quebec, grade nine marks a departure from the more biological-oriented sciences into more analytical science). Furthermore, in the Quebec context, this is an important transition year whereby grade nine science and math grades determine acceptance into the math and science streams at grades 10 and 11, impacting college and university program options.

How can the University play a role in promoting science and providing critical science exposure in order to capture a more diverse population of students in its STEM programs? This question is at the core of this EAB capstone project and I was particularly interested in opportunities for Concordia’s involvement that could benefit our students in terms of experiential learning, strengthen our ties to the community and bolster Concordia’s name with budding scientists and engineers at a key point in the education.

Consulting with two local schools, we are working on a program whereby Concordia students could serve as mentors for eighth and ninth grade science projects with themes related to the UN sustainability goals. This will provide science-based experiential learning and exploration opportunities for these school students and will introduce them to sustainability as a science goal to engage, interest and inspire.

It also allows us to present a diverse set of role models such that the next generation can see themselves in a STEM field. They will not all become scientists, nor should they, but they should see it as a viable career path and also gain a better understanding of the role of the scientist in addressing key societal issues.

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Beyond a positive outreach program that brings early science and engineering exposure to girls at a critical age, the program will provide opportunities for Concordia’s engineering and science student body. All too frequently, student from underrepresented groups are under pressure to participate thus drawing time away from their own studies. Importantly, intersectionality of factors of disadvantage must be taken into consideration, especially socioeconomic factors.

Several options were investigated to compensate students for participation in the program. The first is to establish a credit-based course which could count as a degree elective and for which credit would be obtained (pass/fail) for demonstration and application of knowledge learned in their degree as well as value-added leadership, communication and mentoring skills. This has the advantage of not adding additional time commitment above and beyond a full course schedule and as an elective credit it avoids competition with other program elements.

The other option is to pay students for their time. This provides financial compensation, and leadership skills gained may stand out on a co-curricular record rather than get lost in a long list of courses on a transcript. It also does not require senate approval and can be implemented more readily. A number of funding sources for the latter have been identified including Concordia’s experiential learning office and NSERC’s Young Innovators, Promoscience, and Student Ambassadors programs.

Where do we go from here? The Canada 2067 EDI goals include making student participation in STEM courses “more equitable and inclusive in terms of gender, culture, socio-economic background, and region.” It is my hope that we can expand the program to bring early science exposure and experiential learning opportunities to students with diverse abilities as well as communities including indigenous, remote, rural and/or underprivileged (building on our recent COVID-19 experience in remote teaching).

See the fellows’ blogs from the capstone projects

Christine DeWolf and others participated in EAB’s Rising Higher Education Leaders Fellowship in spring 2022

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