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WCC explores advancing women in STEM classes

BY HEIDI YPMA, Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Post Date:12/08/2014 11:07 a.m.

When Stanford University professor Maryam Mirzakhani was awarded the Fields Medal this summer, she was the first woman to win the prestigious mathematics prize in its nearly 80-year history. The subsequent news articles reveal a troubling gender gap still persists in the fields of science and math. At Whatcom Community College, we’re working to bridge that gap to create career opportunities for women and to strengthen America’s talent pool in these critically important fields. This type of instructional innovation is one of Whatcom’s strengths.

Today, a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degree equals career opportunity. STEM education is critical if America expects to compete in the global economy. If women aren’t in STEM labs and classrooms, we underutilize a source of human capital for this important work and lose potential leaders in the field.

This year, WCC faculty and staff completed a training program – created by the National Institute of Women in Trades, Technology and Science – to help educational institutions develop strategies to recruit and retain women in STEM. During the 10-week course, funded by the National Science Foundation, we learned there have been advances in narrowing the gender gap in many STEM-related fields, but there is still work to be done. This is highlighted at Whatcom by the under-representation of women in certain disciplines: computer information systems and cybersecurity programs, 16 percent women; computer science, 13 percent women; and pre-engineering, 10 percent women. Sadly, these percentages mirror national statistics.

Outside the classroom, women are also underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce. According to data from 2010 provided by the National Science Foundation, while women comprised half of the college-educated workforce, they represented only 28 percent of people employed in science and engineering. While women can be found in significant numbers in the social sciences (58 percent) and life sciences (48 percent), they are found in much lower proportions in engineering (13 percent) and computer and mathematical sciences (25 percent).

After reviewing the research, I believe women who persist in STEM-related fields have adapted to classrooms that unintentionally are more appealing to male learning styles and interests (generally speaking). There are instructional changes we can make to retain female students.

One powerful strategy is simply to talk to the women in our science and math classes. By establishing this personal connection, we can address concerns and suggest resources. At Whatcom, 44 percent of faculty teaching STEM classes are women, providing mentors for female students. In addition to their local influence, many of these professors are contributing to their fields on a national level.

Additionally, research shows women tend to do better and are more likely to be retained in STEM programs when they work in pairs. When educators at the University of California Santa Cruz used this pairing strategy in an introductory computer science class, 90 percent of students finished the course compared to 80 percent in non-pairing classes. At the end of the year, 46 percent of female students declared a major in computer science, compared to only 11 percent of female students in the control group. More male students declared a major in computer science as well, proving this is an effective strategy for all students.

To also retain women in STEM, we should consider learning styles. Female students are more often motivated by projects they find personally relevant and meaningful while men are intrigued by features. For example, women might prefer creating a network that would allow children in Africa internet access while, in general, men might prefer to design a rocket for optimum power and speed and not be as concerned with its purpose. We need to consider these different styles when we develop classroom activities.

As we work on the STEM gender-gap issue at Whatcom, we’re being mindful to acknowledge and separate gender stereotypes from documented differences in learning styles. The bottom line is the gap does exist. As reinforced by Mirzakhani’s notable Fields Medal, there is new territory waiting to be explored by women. In order to reach their potential, as educators, we need to thoughtfully guide their steps. At Whatcom, we are committed to narrowing the gap and, in the process, improving STEM education for all students.

About the author: Heidi Ypma has been a math professor at Whatcom Community College for 18 years. She has served as the math department chair, the curriculum committee chair and is currently the chair of the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics division.

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