STEM advocate discusses how leading institutions are addressing isolation within courses

science-STEM-womenThis week, during Computer Science Education Week, as educators and administrators discuss ways to attract more students—women and minorities especially—to study computer science, remember that it’s not enough to simply encourage under-represented groups to take their first STEM classes.

Educators must recognize that they play a major role in keeping these students engaged and supported throughout their academic careers. Traditional class structures can perpetuate feelings of isolation.  Attracting women and minorities to computer science is one thing; keeping them there and easing their path to graduation (and beyond) is a separate thing altogether.

It was the late 1990’s, and I was one of only three women in the undergraduate computer science program at IIT Kanpur. I spent many nights alone in the computer lab, struggling to complete challenging programming assignments, watching longingly as my male classmates huddled together across the room, asking and answering each other’s questions and working collaboratively to master the complex material.

After attending an all-girls high school in India, I was far too shy to speak to my male peers, much less ask for entrance into their all-male study circles.

After graduation, I moved to the U.S. to earn a master’s degree, and I landed software development jobs at selective firms, including Oracle and Facebook. I came to the U.S. assuming that the social learning challenge I faced in India was unique.

I was shocked to hear time and again from my U.S.-educated female classmates and colleagues that my experience was not at all unique. Sure, most U.S.-educated female college students know how to talk to boys, but many also felt intense isolation in their STEM classes and especially in their computer science classes.

Computer science classes are highly collaborative, or rather they should be. It’s tough to master computer science material without collaborating with others. And it’s tough to collaborate with others when you look and feel so different from your peers. We see this in studies of women leaving STEM careers: isolation is a key “antigen” leading women to leave. That isolation persists in the corporate world, but begins much earlier during the K-12 years and builds during college. [Learn more about Computer Science Education Week]

What are some techniques professors can use to mitigate feelings of isolation among women and minorities in their STEM classes? Hopefully many academics will explore this very topic, but here are five starting tips I’ve found along the way:

1. Modify the lecture. Make learning active.

A recent study from the University of North Carolina and the University of Washington has shown that modifying course structures beyond the traditional lecture format can significantly improve student outcomes for some under-represented groups, and specifically for black and first-generation students taking biology courses. Their study implemented course structures that encouraged ongoing study and skills practice and collaboration, or active learning, while decreasing the reliance of material from lectures, or passive, solitary learning. The result: the achievement gap between black students and their white and Asian peers was almost halved, and the gap between first-generation students and their white and Asian peers was almost eliminated.

(Next page: Tips 2-5)


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