Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Why So Few? Department Climate and Culture I

The 2010 report entitled, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), investigates climate and culture in science and engineering departments at colleges and universities. These areas are especially important for women - both students and faculty.

The graph shows that among first-year college students, women are less likely than men to say that they are interested in majoring in a STEM field. The difference is most pronounced in engineering (shown in green) and computer science (shown in red). However, women are more likely to major in the biological/agricultural sciences.

Yet this does not mean that colleges and universities are off the hook when it comes to increasing the number of women in subjects like engineering and computer science where they are underrepresented. Although fewer women than men come to college with the intention of pursuing a STEM degree, research finds that small changes to improve the climate of STEM departments in colleges and universities can reap significant rewards.

Research by Dr. Barbara Whitten compares “successful” physics departments (those where women were 40% or more of graduates) to more “typical” physics departments (those where women were 20% or less of the graduates). Research by Drs. Jane Margolis and Alan Fisher studies recruitment and retention of female students in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. Both research projects found that small changes in recruitment, admissions, and the curriculum, for instance, can help to improve the climate and culture of departments, and therefore, help to attract and keep female students.

What exactly are some of these small changes they recommend?

First, they recommend that departments actively recruit female students. This may seem obvious, but many departments don’t actively recruit students, they simply wait for students to come to them.

Second, they also encourage departments to offer introductory courses that emphasize the broad applications of science and technology instead of focusing only on the technical aspects of the subjects. This approach has been found to be helpful for attracting both male and female students, but especially female students.

Third, they encourage departments to review their admissions policies to ensure that they are not unintentionally “weeding out” potentially successful students. For example, requiring experience that will be taught in the curriculum, such as, requiring computer science major applicants to have significant prior computer programming experience when computer programming will be taught to students once they are admitted, may weed out potentially successful students, especially women.

Recent posting on improving department climate and culture:

Affordable Suggestions for Department Chairs

Working Toward the Ideal Astronomy Department

Note: much of this text is from the AAUW ppt describing highlights of the Why So Few? report.

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