What Works to Help Young Women Succeed in STEM Education

What Works to Help Young Women Succeed in STEM Education What Works to Help Young Women Succeed in STEM Education

August 28, 20202 min read
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The Stereotype Inoculation Model predicts that like a vaccine against bacteria, exposure to successful own-group peers serves as a ‘social vaccine’



Professor Nilanjana “Buju” Dasgupta, a social psychology researcher at UMass Amherst and director of its College of Natural Sciences’ Institute of Diversity Sciences, is an expert in equity and inclusion.


In an experimental study of 150 incoming female engineering students over four years, she has provided strategies that help to retain college women in STEM majors, specifically engineering.


In the first part of the continuing study, she and colleagues found that at the end of the first college year, a remarkable 100 percent of women students mentored by advanced female peers were still in engineering majors. Dasgupta says the number is “spectacular” because the first college year is typically when the greatest attrition from STEM majors occurs, but none of the women with female mentors dropped out.


This compares with an 18% dropout rate for women students with male mentors and 11% for women with no mentors, the control group.


Women make up more than 50% of university students but hold only between 13% and 33% of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering, computer and physical sciences. Engineering is notable for having one of the lowest proportions of women among all STEM fields, Dasgupta says.


Results of her NSF-funded study also showed that having a female mentor maintained young women’s aspirations to pursue engineering careers by protecting their belonging and confidence. Both were associated with higher retention in the major. The mentoring benefits lasted two years, well after the intervention ended, during the window of highest attrition from STEM majors.


This same-gender intervention didn’t increase belonging, confidence or motivation, but it stabilized these and kept them from dropping in an environment where women students are a tiny minority. Study controls – women with no peer mentor – showed sharp declines in belonging in engineering, confidence in ability, motivation and interest in advanced engineering degrees. Having a female mentor preserved all of these.


Also, her study found that in the first college year, women’s performance in engineering and related classes was not correlated with retention in the major at all. What was correlated with retention were feelings of belonging and confidence. Women who felt they fit into engineering and felt confident about their ability persisted in the majors.


Results support the Stereotype Inoculation Model, which predicts that as a vaccine protects against bacteria, exposure to successful own-group peers serves as a “social vaccine” to inoculate one against noxious stereotypes. This is especially effective during developmental transitions when individuals experience self-doubt and uncertainty.


These findings provide support for an evidence-based, field-tested best practice that could become a normal part of what colleges and universities do to recruit and retain underrepresented students in STEM fields broadly to grow the pipeline of such students in STEM.


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  • Nilanjana  Dasgupta
    Nilanjana Dasgupta Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Director of the Institute of Diversity Sciences

    Nilanjana "Buju" Dasgupta studies how implicit or unconscious bias influences people’s first impressions and behavior toward others.

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