Chapter 3:

The Undergraduate Experience in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering

The underrepresentation of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in most areas of scientific and technical endeavors is an issue of continuing concern to educators, employers, and those organizations responsible for sponsoring research and development activities. Although the number of women graduating with bachelorís degrees from some scientific fields equals or exceeds the number of men, in many fields there are far fewer women than could be expected from their number in the general population or on college and university campuses (see "Indices of Representation" on page 63). Since 1989, the number of underrepresented minorities earning bachelorís degrees in science, mathematics, and engineering (SME) has risen each year.

Underrepresented minorities earned over 17 percent of the total number of undergraduate SME degrees awarded in 1995, up from 12 percent in 1989. (See appendix table 3-1.) The continuing differences in the enrollment and graduation rates of different racial/ethnic groups in science, mathematics, and engineering at the undergraduate level need to be better understood.

This chapter examines factors that influence access, achievement, and educational outcomes for women, minorities, and persons with disabilities who attend 2-year and 4-year institutions. This review of undergraduate education looks at changes in enrollment, course-taking patterns, and outcomes over the past few decades at all institutions of higher learning. It examines patterns of courses taken and outcomes (degrees awarded, attrition) by age, race/ethnicity, and major. An examination of these factors provides a greater understanding of the reasons that disparity among groups entering the fields of science, mathematics, and engineering has persisted.

Persistent Disparity in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering

Since 1980, more women than men have enrolled in college, and since 1982, women have earned more undergraduate degrees than have men. In 1995, women constituted 49 percent of the U.S. population ages 18 to 24 and earned 55 percent of all bachelorís degrees awarded, up from 43 percent in 1966. (See appendix tables 3-2 and 3-3.)

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Despite impressive gains, the participation of women in the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering still lags significantly behind that of white men and Asians, as evidenced by the following:

Women are, however, as well or more highly represented than men in some science fields. For example, they earned nearly half of the bachelorís degrees awarded in 1995 in the biological/agricultural sciences and social sciences and 73 percent of the degrees in psychology. (See appendix table 3-2.)

Systematic data on minority participation in science, mathematics, and engineering education have been collected only since the late 1970s. (See appendix tables 3-4 and 3-5.) The bulleted data below show disparities persisting over time. Recent studies provide insight into the role that precollege preparation, self-confidence, work and family, availability of role models, peer support, and teaching methods play in maintaining that disparity.

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Loss of Confidence as a Cause of Field Switching Among Undergraduate Women in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Majors top

A recent study shows that many young women bring to their experience of science, mathematics, and engineering (SME) disciplines a pattern of socialization that is entirely different from that of young men. Many aspects of SME majors, which have evolved largely to meet the educational needs of young men, force women into conflict with their own socialization experiences. The resolution of these conflicts is sometimes accomplished by leaving the major, sometimes by making personal adjustments to the dominant male social system.

Broadly speaking, men experience a life-long pressure to manifest an intrinsic sense of self-worth, to respond to challenge with displays of self-sufficiency and stoicism, and to show independence from the need for nurturing. By contrast, the socialization of young women (including their formal education) is biased toward the development of an extrinsic sense of identity. From earliest childhood, throughout the years of formal education, girls are encouraged to perform for the approval of others and to attach feelings of confidence and self-worth to signs that others are pleased by what they do. The degree to which any woman depends on others for her sense of achievement varies according to the mixture of cultural influences that constitute her socialization experiences. The tendency to perform for others is not gender-exclusive: depending on the circumstances of their upbringing and education, young men may also exhibit this trait. One important exception was found to be black women, who reflected a pattern of socialization that encouraged an independent self-image, self-reliance, and assertiveness in getting educational needs met. These women were distinctively inner-directed, compared with other women and most black men.

A pattern of performing for others–with negative consequences for persistence–appeared in several aspects of the study data. Many more women than men reported that they had chosen SME majors at the prompting of family or teachers, rather than for reasons of field or career interest.[1]  Choices made primarily to please someone else did not withstand the rigors of an SME major and made students vulnerable to the attractions of other fields. The study found a difference in the approach to education among young men and young women. An example is their different reasons for disliking large introductory classes. Men disliked them because they "have negative effects on grades," encourage "more competition for grades," and "are usually taught by less qualified faculty." Women disliked large classes because "you donít get to know the professor," "itís too impersonal," and "the professor doesnít care if you learn or attend class." These differences in judgments also suggest that women were more likely to enter college expecting to establish individual teacher-learner relationships.

This expectation was also reflected in the definitions of "good" and "bad" teachers offered by male and female students. Women commonly stressed the importance of a teacherís personal behavior toward them and defined the "bad" teacher as "unapproachable," "impersonal," and "intimidating." Good teachers were seen as "approachable," "friendly," and "patient"; they "really care about you, and want you to learn." Men were less concerned with facultyís openness to student contact than with their effectiveness in presenting the material.

Being raised to work for the approval of others explains why many women enter college without a clear view of what they want from their education and also why the openness of faculty to student contact is so central to many womenís definition of the good teacher. For these women, engaging the teacher in a personal dialogue is critical both to the ease with which they can learn and to their level of confidence about their academic performance. The reluctance of many faculty to be drawn into pedagogical or advisory relationships with individual students is a major factor in the decision of many able young women to leave SME majors.[2] 

The observations of the students in this study may offer a way to explain the recurrent finding of lowered confidence and self-esteem noted in other studies (Hall and Sandler, 1982; Ware and Dill, 1986; Arnold, 1987; Manis et al. 1993; see also reviews of this literature in Kimball, 1989 and ,Oakes, 1990). A female student whose confidence in her ability to domathematics and science is overdependent on the judgments of others, does not know how to assess the adequacy of her performance. Her self-confidence may be already shaken by her abrupt reduction in status. In high school, she was treated as special; now, she is part of a minority who are often treated with a perceived hostility that she cannot explain. The consequence for some women is confusion, anxiety, and a strong sense of abandonment. In the study one young woman stated

Some of my girlfriends and I used to take it really hard when we didnít seem to do so well–you know–hiring tutors, and just struggling and crying over grades–getting out old tests and working extra problems, and making flash cards, and just working extra, extra hard. And it was all because, as hard as we tried, we just could not seem to please the professors. We were just looking for some encouragement.... I used to get nauseated before exams. It took me a long time to get over that.... Eventually, I learned not to take it to heart. Itís not you theyíre grading: itís just your work–and not always that. Men just blow it off. (Female white mathematics non-switcher)

Even when their performance is adequate or good, teacher-dependent students (whether women or men) have difficulty in motivating themselves and in knowing that they are "doing okay" without faculty reassurance. Some of the nonswitching seniors described how difficult it had been to forego the high level of interaction and support to which they had been accustomed throughout their earlier school years. Learning to develop an independent sense of their own ability and progress had been vital to their survival.

One reason I did well in high school is because I cared about what the teachers thought about me. I knew I was doing well when people were pleased with me. I was always looking for that praise just so I knew I was doing okay. It took me a long time to get over that...I used to get very upset because, here, the teacher doesnít know who you are. (Female white engineering switcher)

Depending on teachers for performance evaluation, reassurance about progress, and as the basis for motivation, constitutes a serious handicap for the many women who enter college having learned how to learn in this manner. Persistence initiatives which do not take this into account simply will not be effective. Looking to a teacher for interpretation and validation of their academic performance is a learned dependence which people can change, or outgrow, but not without first experiencing anxiety and frustration which, for some, ends in field switching. To a much higher degree than is the case for young men, preserving the self-confidence which young women bring into college depends on periodic reinforcement by faculty. To be faced with the prospect of four years of relative isolation and perceived male hostility on the one hand, and the abrupt withdrawal of familiar sources of praise, encouragement, and reassurance by faculty on the other, is the most common reason for the loss of self-confidence that makes able women in the sciences and engineering vulnerable to field switching.

–Adapted from Elaine Seymour and Nancy M. Hewitt, Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences (Westview Press, 1997)


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American Indians in Higher Education top

Data presented elsewhere in this chapter and the appendix (see "Technical Notes to Chapter 3" and appendix A) show American Indians have the lowest rates of enrollment in and graduation from both 2-year and 4-year undergraduate institutions. Interestingly, the index of representation in text table 3-1 shows that the proportion of American Indian females in college is higher than their proportion in the general population. Together, American Indian males and females earn fewer than 1 percent of bachelorís degrees awarded in all fields.

During the 30 years since Dineh College (formerly Navajo Community College), located in the heart of the Navajo Reservation, was founded, the number of tribal colleges has increased to 30 in 12 States. These colleges now enroll approximately 27,000 students. As Boyer notes, the possibility of American Indian participation in higher education is enhanced by the existence of these tribal colleges.

According to the Carnegie Foundation report, "Isolated by distance and culture, many [American Indians] have come to accept that they cannot complete school. College seems to many American Indians an impossible dream. Tribal colleges offer hope in this climate of despair...without sacrificing academic rigor, courses are often tailored to reflect the unique learning styles of American Indian students." (Boyer, 1977, p. 4)

Tribal colleges have become an integral part of the larger system of higher education for American Indians. Succeeding at a tribal college also appears to encourage students to continue their education and leads to increased employment opportunities.

Although no reliable studies have yet been done about graduation rates from tribal colleges, some tribal college presidents estimate that between 25 and 33 percent of students who enroll eventually receive a certificate or degree (Boyer, 1997). A survey of more than 500 graduates of Turtle Mountain College from 1980 to 1990 found that most graduates were either working or going to school. Fewer than 13 percent were unemployed, which "is in sharp contrast to the total rate of unemployment among Indian people." (Boyer, 1997, p. 68)

Research funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation examined the experience of American Indians majoring in math, science, engineering, or business (McAfee, 1977). The phenomenon of stepping into, out of, and back into higher education emerged as a typical mode of college attendance. Strength of cultural identity had a significant impact on persistence and outcome of undergraduate education. McAfeeís findings about the relationship between cultural identity and persistence to degree attainment reinforce the importance of tribal colleges for American Indians in higher education. In addition, McAfeeís work suggests that the phenomenon of stepping out is a norm that needs to be better understood and accommodated by institutions of higher education.

Patterns of overrepresentation and underrepresentation of the racial/ethnic and gender groups were analyzed in more detail. To measure the extent to which the various groups were overrepresented, at parity, or underrepresented in the college population, an index of representation (IR) was computed. (See "Technical Notes to Chapter 3" for details.)

The IR for total college enrollment indicates that in 1980 white males and females, Asian males and females, and American Indian females had higher proportions among persons enrolled in college than they had among the general population of 18- to 24-year-olds. Asian males and females had the highest index scores. (See figure 3-1, text table 3-1, and appendix tables 3-6, 3-7, 3-8, and 3-9.) In 1980, black males and females, Hispanic males and females, and American Indian males were underrepresented in the college population. Hispanic males and black males had the lowest index scores. The IR score for American Indian females in 1980 indicates that their representation in the college population was higher than their representation in the general population.

Between 1980 and 1990, except for white females, persons from all racial/ethnic and gender categories were less represented in the college population than in the general population. After 1990, the representation scores of both white males and females decreased while those of the other categories increased. Racial/ethnic minorities have improved their representation in higher education. Black females had almost achieved parity by 1994. Their IR score in 1994 was essentially equal to that of white males whose proportional representation in the college population has systematically decreased below parity. On the other hand, Asian males and females, white females, and American Indian females continued through the beginning years of the 1990s to be overrepresented in the college population. The rate of improvement among black males has been slower than that of the other groups that improved. Hispanic males have caught up with black males in their proportional representation in the college population.

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[1] The stronger tendency of women to be drawn into SME majors through the influence of others was also found by Strenta et al. (1993).

[2] Manis, Sloat, Thomas, and Davis (1989) also found the "impersonality" of science and mathematics classes to be more problematic for women than for men.

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