'Belonging' can help keep talented female students in STEM classes
Researcher Nilanjana Dasgupta's work has led to recommendations for schools, other organizations
August 26, 2016
Many women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have faced a common experience at some point during their college days -- they walked into a classroom and found that they were among a small handful of women in the class, or even the only one.
That kind of experience has the potential to make a talented, motivated student feel out-of-place, and compel her to search for more inclusive academic environments, according to Nilanjana Dasgupta, a psychology researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Questioning one's sense of "belonging" in an academic environment may contribute to why women are significantly under-represented in some areas of STEM.
Dasgupta's research, supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate (SBE), identifies interventions or remedies that universities and other organizations can employ to increase women's sense of belonging in STEM -- even in cases where they are a small minority in the classroom among male peers.
Dasgupta discussed her research with NSF:
Q. How significant is the idea of belonging, when it comes to STEM education?
A. For women and any other negatively stereotyped groups -- whether we're talking about underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities or first-generation students -- belonging really determines whether you stick it out in a field that interests you. You feel a sense of camaraderie and comfort, or you start losing interest, confidence, and start thinking about leaving for another field.
Belonging is just a way of saying "Do I fit in here? Do I feel comfortable here? Or should I start looking for another subject where there are more people like me?"
We usually think of performance as determining whether somebody pursues an academic major or profession. But an interesting observation that has emerged from my research is that for women in STEM, performance is not the critical ingredient that will tell me who is vulnerable to leaving. Usually, women who leave STEM perform just as well as others who stay. Poor performance is not what drives them out. Feeling like they fit in, or not, is the critical ingredient that determines retention.
Q. So it seems that there are two separate issues -- getting women and other groups into STEM classes and then retaining them.
A. Yes, that's right. I think belonging is particularly important when it comes to retention, arguably more so than it is for recruitment. Usually, people walk through the door if they have some degree of ability, interest, and curiosity about a subject. What makes them stay is belonging.
Q. NSF supports other research that looks into these sorts of issues at the K-12 level. You're looking at college students. At the college level, does something like belonging continue to matter?
A. It matters a lot. If you look at the STEM pipeline, at K-12, students can't opt out of core courses. They have to take a certain number of assigned science and math courses. They might opt in to the non-honors version, but they still have to go through it. College is when individual students' pathways begin to diverge. That's where belonging and confidence help determine whether someone will keep moving along a STEM pathway or move off that path onto a non-STEM path.
Belonging and confidence are not only correlated with each other, but they are also influenced by who you see in the field, small successes you're able to achieve, and the relevance of what you're learning to impact real-world social problems.
Q. How do you collect data on something like the feeling of belonging?
A. We ask people. This is one variable where we rely on students' self-reports -- we don't measure this implicitly or indirectly. For example, we ask: "Do you feel connected to your classmates in engineering? A lot? Not much? Do you feel like an outsider? Do you feel accepted by your classmates in engineering? Do you feel invisible?" People respond to a series of questions like this using response scales. This tells us their subjective experiences.
Q. What sorts of findings have you made so far?
A. We found that women students who have had either one-on-one contact with, or media exposure to, same-gender professors, experts or peers, feel "I belong here." This in turn makes them more confident about their abilities, more likely to persist in math, science, and engineering majors, and more interested in pursuing careers in these fields after graduation. This happens when female students see same-gender experts and peers in fields where they are typically a tiny minority, such as engineering, mathematics, computer science, physics, and astronomy.
Q. Do you have any guidelines for schools looking to set up learning spaces where people feel they belong?
A. I have five recommendations based on our research findings about what schools and universities can do.
One, provide incoming female students more exposure to scientists, engineers and innovators who are women. That allows newbies coming through the STEM pipeline to see other people like them who are more experienced and successful. They can imagine themselves in similar roles in the future.
Second, for institutions and departments where the gender distribution is really skewed with few women professors and senior scientists, I recommend intentionally creating other ways to enhance students' exposure to technical women.
Examples of this might be if male faculty teaching a class incorporate brief stories of the work of women scientists or engineers related to the content of the class, or invite female scientists or engineers to be guest speakers in their class. Or, if a STEM department makes an active effort to invite colloquium speakers to campus who are women.
Third, I recommend organizing a peer mentoring system where female students who are juniors or seniors in STEM majors serve as peer mentors to incoming women. These peer mentors fill a niche that's different from high-level successful role models because they are closer in age and life stage to their mentees. Peer mentors are a stepping stone on the way to professional success in STEM.
The fourth recommendation involves work teams. As we know, science and engineering work is often done in teams, and the gender compositions of work teams really matters for women. It's important to create teams with a critical mass of women and avoid teams where there's only one woman, or women are a tiny minority.
The last recommendation is to remember that feelings of belonging are most at risk when women students are in developmental transition points, like the transition from high school to college, or college to graduate school, or graduate school to a first job. These are the times when people move from an environment that they know, where they feel they fit in, to a new environment where they feel uncertain of their place. Having interventions targeting these transition points is key.
Q. Are you using those five points to work with educators and the scientific community?
A. Yes. I've given talks at Google to a large group of tech innovators, to scientists, deans, provosts and other administrative leaders at more than 20 colleges and universities, to policymakers and their legislative staff, and to K-12 teachers and principals. I've presented our research findings to legislative staff on Capitol Hill, both the House and Senate side, and talked to people who have introduced bills on workforce development and STEM education at the federal and state level.
To me, the dissemination of our research to influence education, workforce development, and policymaking is so very important.
Q. You gave a talk at NSF that received a lot of positive feedback from women who said they could relate to your takeaways. Is it a challenge to talk to male scientists and educators about these issues?
A. Not at all. I can't think of a single example where male scientists, engineers, or educators who heard me speak haven't gotten it. Sometimes, the leaky pipeline problem and remedies to it may not have been on their radar before my talk, but they always get it after the talk. People who aren't psychological scientists who study these issues may not be thinking of the causes of the STEM leaky pipeline and the solutions to it. They just want to be good educators and assume that if they focus on the content of science and engineering in their classes that will be enough to get students excited, and to recruit and retain more women and other underrepresented minorities in STEM.
But that's not enough—that's why it's vital for us to communicate social science research findings.
One of my male colleagues, a biochemistry professor, is very interested in new pedagogical techniques, like team-based learning, to increase student engagement in biochemistry. But he had assumed that the best kinds of work teams are heterogeneous, which meant ensuring that student teams varied in their demographics -- their gender, year in college, majors vs. non-majors. Given that women are a minority in biochemistry, by default, creating heterogeneous teams meant each student team in his class often had only one woman.
When he read my article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, he thought "Wait a minute, this applies to my class; maybe I should be creating student teams differently than I had before." So he wrote me an email wanting to try it out. This correspondence has started a new research collaboration between us.
One of the most gratifying aspects of disseminating our research to a broad audience has been that my male colleagues in science, engineering, and computing are very interested in applying evidence-based remedies we've identified in their classes and majors. They don't want to lose women students, but they aren't always aware of specific interventions and remedies to try out that are supported by research. That's why I organize my research findings to emphasize a few concrete remedies that my colleagues in STEM can use in their classes.
Nilanjana Dasgupta is a psychology researcher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
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University of Massachusetts Amherst
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