Strategies to Close the Gender Gap in Engineering Course Participation


Student identities can play a key role in how comfortable they are and how often they express themselves in the classroom, especially in STEM fields. For example, women generally speak much less than men in undergraduate engineering classes, but that’s not always the case, according to the Princeton researchers. When classes are taught by female teachers, the gender gap virtually disappears.

Another major factor in women’s participation in class is the participation of other women – researchers have found that women are much more likely to speak after another woman has spoken in class.

“This was one of the findings that excited me the most, because it looked like something that could really be leveraged to change teaching practices,” said study co-author Nikita. Dutta, who earned a doctorate in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton in 2021 and is now the Director’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “It’s kind of like a cascading effect once a woman starts participating.”

Although much progress has been made over the past few decades, women remain vastly underrepresented in engineering and other STEM fields. In 2018, women earned 22.2% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering in the United States. (Princeton Engineering’s current undergraduate population is 41% female.) Previous work has shown that experiences with mentors, peer groups, and classroom climate play critical roles in women’s success. undergraduate in engineering.

The studypublished online in IEEE Transactions on Education, included observations from 1,387 student comments over 89 class periods in 10 different courses at Princeton School of Engineering. Five of the lessons were taught by women and five by men, although only 30 of the observed lesson periods were taught by women. While the students observed in class were 45.5% women and 54.5% men, only 20.3% of the comments in class came from women. (The study setup did not allow students to self-identify their gender; observers noted each student’s perceived gender as “male,” “female,” or “non-binary.”)

This gender gap widened slightly when the researchers considered only male-taught classes (17.1% of comments came from women in male-taught classes versus 20.3% overall), but almost disappeared with a female teacher. In classes taught by women, feedback from female students increased to 47.3%.

By studying the timing of student comments, the researchers found that after a woman participated in class, the proportion of female comments increased to 32.4% over the next minute, an effect that was faded over time but lasted nine minutes after the initial comment.

Dutta conducted his thesis research with Craig Arnold, Susan Dod Brown Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Director of the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials. In the fall of 2018, she was also a teaching assistant for Arnold’s course, “Structure and Properties of Materials”.

During lectures, she noticed that women seemed to answer questions and make comments less often than men; she began tracking student participation informally and found variability from one class session to the next. She became curious about what might be behind these fluctuations and whether other engineering courses might reveal bigger trends. At the end of the semester, Dutta presented his findings to Arnold and the rest of his research group at their weekly meeting.

“My jaw dropped. I thought, ‘This is remarkable; this is amazing.’ She started talking about her plans…and eventually it turned into a real scientific study,” said Arnold, who co-authored the paper with Dutta.

Dutta and Arnold submitted a proposal to Princeton’s Institutional Review Board, which oversees research involving human subjects. They also consulted with experts in pedagogy and educational assessment at Princeton’s McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, where Dutta had trained as a graduate lecturer.

Over the next two semesters, they recruited other graduate students to help shadow lectures representing different class sizes and levels. Although the study was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, they were able to collect enough data to draw meaningful conclusions.

In addition to recording the sex of student commentators, observers labeled the comments as “spontaneous”, “solicited” or “involuntary”. The gender gaps in spontaneous and solicited participation were similar to the overall gender gap. The number of off-the-cuff comments was low, as only three of the 10 instructors called out students who hadn’t raised their hands, but observations suggest that instructors called out both males and females equally.

Observers also categorized comments as “conceptual questions,” “clarifications,” “answers,” or “general comments” unrelated to course content. Women participated more frequently after another woman’s comment, regardless of the type of comment, indicating that icebreaker questions are a strategy instructors can use to promote participation and refresh participants’ attention. students.

“I think the fact that conversational feedback is still having the effect of increasing female participation is a really empowering result, because it means you can solicit less intimidating forms of participation,” Dutta said. “For example, in a course on materials, you can ask students where they have observed these types of properties in real life. It’s a technique that some teachers are already using, but I think it shows how useful it can be to not only encourage greater participation, but to encourage more equitable participation.

The researchers also noted that involving more women as co-instructors, guest lecturers and teaching assistants could help close the gender participation gap by harnessing the effect seen in courses taught by women. . It could be particularly useful to use early career researchers as instructors and role models, given the long period of change in gender representation among university faculty.

For women and students from other underrepresented groups in STEM fields, decades of research have shown the importance of “feeling like part of that community, that they can be part of the conversation and speak up.” group, seek clarification, or confidently answer a question,” said Kelly Godfrey, associate director of educational and program evaluation at the McGraw Center, who advised the research. “Being part of the community is the end goal, and that’s one of the ways we can pave that way.”

“The challenges of inclusive education often seem so great: how are we going to fight against systematic oppression and hundreds of years of models; how can we make a difference in this? said Sarah Schwarz, senior associate director for graduate pedagogy at the McGraw Center. “I think there are often really compelling little touches that make a difference in creating more inclusive classrooms, and this is one of many powerful examples of that.”

Dutta and Arnold said they hope educators at Princeton and other institutions will implement some of the strategies they suggest, as well as expand on this initial study by examining patterns of engagement in a wider range of students. and courses, including the participation of students from other underrepresented countries. groups.

“The results we found are just the beginning – there is much more [to] learn,” Arnold said. “I hope this document inspires people to think about some of the little things you can do in the classroom that can make a big difference.”

Dutta’s work was supported in part by the Charlotte Elizabeth Procter Honorary Fellowship from Princeton.

– This press release originally appeared on the Princeton University website

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