Tag Archives: STEM

Making Excellence Inclusive in STEM Classes – Barrier #1: Stereotypes

This fall and spring, the Schreyer Institute is sponsoring a workshop series exploring the topic of Inclusive Excellence, or how college instructors can harness the power of diversity in their classrooms. The series is comprised of three workshops(1), the third of which was held on November 7th:


Many thanks again to Andres Tellez for the beautiful mandala image used in the flyer for our event.

In this research-based workshop, we discussed the characteristics and benefits of an inclusive classroom, identified common barriers to inclusivity in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) classes, and discussed some new strategies for tackling these barriers constructively in STEM classes.

This blog post is the first in a series of follow-ups to the workshop intended to build on some of the themes, suggestions, and tips generated in the session, and also make resources available for further reading on the topic. When possible, in the discussion of specific scholarly works I have linked to both public summaries and journal articles so that those with and without fulltext journal access can read about this research.

But first, here’s the workshop prezi:

.prezi-player { width: 550px; } .prezi-player-links { text-align: center; }

Note: at the time of this first post, the references sections in the prezi for Barriers #2 and #3 are still being compiled, and will be completed when I post the blog entries for these barriers (forthcoming). This embedded prezi will automatically update. 

As you can see in the prezi, the bulk of the workshop was organized around three barriers to making excellence inclusive in STEM classrooms. The first barrier we identified was Stereotypes.

Wherefore art thou stereotype?
At its most basic level, of course, a stereotype is merely an oversimplified conception of a group of people. Stereotypes develop out of longstanding cultural assumptions and tend to self-replicate and become rooted in popular belief. In the workshop, we brainstormed a number of stereotypes specific to STEM including which types of people “naturally” possess STEM-specific abilities and skills, which types do not, and who STEM practitioners are and are not. The stereotypes we came up with involved categories of gender, race, learning style and ability. Images like the “mad scientist” were invoked – male, white, out of touch with the world, cares only about work, has no social skills, and can’t get a date to save his life:

Image credit: tvtropes.com

While at times humorous, this activity highlighted the proliferation of problematic images involving STEM – stereotypes that involve both the perception of STEM fields by those outside the disciplines, as well perceptions of who “belongs” in a STEM field. Research shows that these perceptions form early – for instance this 2011 study (journal article here) found that children started linking math with gender as early as the second grade:

The kids, 247 children (126 girls and 121 boys) in grades one through five in Seattle-area schools, sat in front of a large-screen laptop computer and used an adapted keyboard to sort words into categories.

As early as second grade, the children demonstrated the American cultural stereotype for math: boys associated math with their own gender while girls associated math with boys. In the self-concept test, boys identified themselves with math more than girls did.

In our workshop, one participant asked “How are children picking up these stereotypes so early?” Many scholars who study the social construction of gender and race argue that these cues are embedded in the fabric of our lives from a very young age (for a well-researched and accessible introduction to some of this work, check out the excellent Sociological Images blog. Specifically, here’s a primer on the Sociology of Gender). For instance, children’s toys often incorporate subtle (or not so subtle) visual cues about what jobs are performed by men and which are performed by women:


Image credit: Caroline P. via Lisa Wade, Sociological Images

Or which intellectual skills girls are okay to possess or not possess:

and stir” approach to diversifying course materials is not a magic elixir for addressing the impacts of stereotypes in STEM classes. As some have no-doubt experienced, a ham-handed application of this tip can be ineffective, or worse, lead to awkward and counter-productive “diversity moments” that succeed only in singling out diverse learners and distracting the class from course material. Thus, this tip works best as a thoughtful complement to tips 1 and 2, and in cooperation with the goals and objectives of your lessons and course more broadly.

Beyond the Barriers

As always, incremental steps are steps in the right direction. If you are unsure how best to approach making these kinds of changes, you can always contact us at the Schreyer Institute for an individual consultation, a classroom observation, or a custom workshop. Our services for Penn State teachers are always free and confidential.

This article was written by Destiny D. Aman, a Ph.D. candidate in geography, and a graduate student affiliate of the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence at Penn State University. Originally posted 1 December 2011. How to cite a blog post.

(1) Notes from Workshop 1 and Workshop 2 are available elsewhere on the SITE blog.

(2) Indeed a recent survey by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE), found “sense of fit” to be the single most important climate factor predicting job satisfaction in STEM faculty positions, with women significantly less likely to report satisfaction in this category.

Image credits for photos on the right:
Scantron (stock.xchng)
Physics classroom (Science Daily)
Homer brain (simpsontrivia.com.ar)
Too pretty t-shirt (spreadshirt.com)
Engineer (findbb.com)

Scientist (NewsOne.com)

Women of Color in STEM

The Summer 2011 issue Harvard Educational Review focuses on Women of Color in STEM.  The issue commemorates the 35th anniversary of the publication of The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science (1976 AAAS).  Shirley Malcom, lead author of the original publication and an author of one article from the recent symposium received her PhD in Ecology from Penn State in 1974 and is one of Penn State’s most distinguished alumni.  Dr. Malcom currently leads the directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs at the AAAS (American Assn. for the Advancement of Science).

I’d love to consider co-sponsoring an event for her to once again return here to talk about this important topic during the 35th anniversary of the publication of Double Bind.  I can imagine a number of potential partners including Educational Equity, the Graduate School (Malcom was in the Interdisciplinary Graduate program), Eberly College of Science, Agricultural Sciences (who nominated her for the Distinguished Alumni award), and maybe even the College of Engineering.

One of the articles, “Pathways and Pipelines” has some interesting comments about STEM instruction and its impact on the persistence of women of color in STEM.  It would be great to be able to highlight some of the teaching and learning going on in our science classes that engages women of color inside the classroom, as opposed to what the author, Espinosa, desribes as the “obscurity and subsequent silence that marks the behavior of women of color
in the STEM classroom due to gendered and racialized treatment by peers
and professors” (p. 233).  I know that there are some great examples of active and collaborative learning going on in STEM classrooms across the university.

Teaching Excellence or Proficience?

Today on the POD Listserv Francine Glazer, VP at NY Inst. of Technology and long time faculty developer, posted a link to an article written by Jim Fairweather from Michigan State for the National Research Council. The article is about promising practices in STEM and whether providing evidence that alternative teaching strategies improve students’ learning is important to the adoption of effective strategies by STEM educators (http://www7.nationalacademies.org/bose/Fairweather_CommissionedPaper.pdf)

See pp. 7-9 for a discussion of strategies used to try to improve student learning in STEM. Fran points us to the strategy he describes as “Improving student learning productivity” (p. 8). Basically, this strategy involves engaging the faculty responsible for “poor instructional outcomes in STEM” (p. 9) to engage in “any form of pedagogy that increases student engagement.” Focusing on the large number of faculty that rely solely on traditional lecturing and getting them to include even a small amount of active learning could have a bigger impact than getting the faculty who already use active learning strategies to use them more often or more effectively.

Fairweather suggests that this population is more motivated by rewards than evidence.  I’d have to agree after successfully using a “baby steps approach” for many years–i.e. focus on helping all faculty to consider changing one thing in one class on one day to involve students in some form of active learning. If we can help faculty do that one thing well, they see/experience the improvement in students’ learning, which is a reward of sorts.

While I don’t doubt that Fairweather is correct that evidence won’t convert the true skeptic, being able to provide evidence from STEM teaching for STEM faculty does allow us to credibly make the case, which allows us to move on. If we can’t provide evidence when requested, it can serve as justification to dismiss us and our suggestions. That is, it is faculty developers’ mastery of and access to the evidence that is important, not necessarily that evidence exists (although I realize that we can’t have one w/o the other).

However, the real reason that this idea caught my eye is that I wonder if any teaching center has ever explicitly approached their programming in this way–explicitly focusing on reducing the use of the worst techniques among the largest group of faculty users? I wonder if one could engage STEM faculty by appealing to their empirical experimental sides? Could one convince a large number of all-lecture-all-the-time to make an across the board shift? Could we have a biggest-bang-for-your-buck or ‘make one small change, reap big reawards’ series? 

Michigan State resources for Teaching in the Natural Sciences

Allyn Shaw in Michigan State’s Office of Faculty and Instructional Resources (F&OD) just sent a link to some rich resources that the F&OD announced to the POD Listserv for teaching topics in natural science, “Teaching in the Disciplines: College of Natural Science.”  This is just one of many Teaching in the Disciplines lists of resources in their Online Instructional Resources (http://fod.msu.edu/OIR/toc.asp).

Engaged STEM Learning, AAC&U Conference

Please send this information to STEM contacts. Julia Kregenow might be very interested, who is her contact on the grant?

Engaged STEM Learning: From Promising to Pervasive Practices
March 24-26, 2011
Miami, Florida

Call for Proposals Deadline: August 31, 2010

Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL), in partnership with AAC&U, announces the 2011 Network for Academic Renewal conference, Engaged STEM Learning: From Promising to Pervasive Practices. This interactive, hands-on conference will help campuses adapt, scale up, and sustain effective practices in STEM teaching and learning.

The conference is designed for participants who wish to develop faculty and institutional leadership in STEM reform, broaden student participation and success in STEM fields, better assess engaged STEM learning in both the majors and general education, and connect the revitalization of STEM learning with ongoing campus work in Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP).

We invite proposals on five key themes:

  • Expanding the STEM Pipeline through Student Success
  • Creating Integrative and Interdisciplinary STEM Environments
  • Assessing STEM Learning
  • Enhancing STEM Learning through Technology
  • Scaling Up and Sustaining Pedagogies of Engagement

Learn more about this conference and the call for proposals online.

For more information, please call 202-387-3760 or write to network@aacu.org.

We look forward to reading your proposals.