Researchers are tackling the stubborn question of how gender bias impacts STEM education

STEM education at the K-12 and university levels has seen its share of headlines, as industry experts and policymakers tout its importance in the nation’s economy and workforce.

Despite the focus on engaging students in STEM education and encouraging them to pursue STEM majors in college, the STEM industry is still male-dominated. In fact, a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce study revealed that women hold approximately 50 percent of jobs in the country, but only fill just 25 percent of STEM jobs. That same study revealed that 17 of the top 20 highest-paying occupations require STEM skills.

With these gender disparities in mind, a collaborative research project between Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab and the School of Computer Science, called the HEAR ME project, is hoping to identify how students themselves feel about STEM education’s importance, and how they think gender bias could, or already does, impact them.

“STEM education has been a very big movement in education, and as we focus specifically on STEM learning, one thing we want to make sure of is that the biggest stakeholder in this is being heard,” said Jessica Kaminsky, project manager of the CREATE Lab at CMU and key researcher behind the HEAR ME project.

“Who better to ask about what STEM learning looks like, if they’re seeing a gender bias, than the students who are living out the STEM programs running in their schools?,” Kaminsky said, adding that gender bias at all levels of education will be examined to. “I interviewed a 5-year-old boy who told me very convincingly that only boys can make robots–girls can’t. He was really set on those gender norms. What does this look like when you’re in the university setting?”

(Next page: How the project addresses STEM education and gender bias)

The project asks students of all ages about their STEM learning experiences in school and if they think their gender has impacted their success or interest in STEM learning experiences.

Researchers also are gathering personal stories from the students they interview, such as a story from an elementary school girl who said her math teacher said boys are better at math than girls.

“We also want to bring that conversation up to a university level,” Kaminsky said. “We’re having those conversations at Carnegie Mellon and trying to make sure this is a culture that is equally diverse and welcoming of all backgrounds and genders.”

Researchers have interviewed about 90 students and hope to speak with 150 in all. While the analysis is not complete, Kaminsky said the trend so far appears to be that the majority of students don’t believe their gender impacts their ability to succeed in STEM.

“The older the students are, the more they’re interested in talking about what the influences are that create a disparity between who actually ends up going into STEM in higher-ed or a career,” Kaminsky said. “High school students tend to have the message of, ‘We’re all equally capable, but we’re not equal in who is deciding to go into these fields,’ so they want to talk about influences on that–could it be parents or teachers? What are the negative influences, and what are the positive influences?”

Interviews will be published online and as podcasts, and physical displays on the CMU campus allow passersby to play an audio file and listen to various student interviews.

“We want to engage more people in this conversation around the effects that gender may or may not have on STEM education and STEM careers,” Kaminsky said. “It might teach people to look at their own practices and start a larger conversation here within the School of Computer Science.”

For the past 10 years, Project Tomorrow’s Speak Up Survey has asked students about their interest in STEM career fiends and how they want to explore STEM careers.

Each year, about 25 percent of students in grades 6-12 say they are very interested in STEM careers, said Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow, in an email to eSchool News.

However, there exists a sizable difference in how girls respond to that question (21 percent of girls in grades 6-8 are “very interested”) compared to how boys respond (32 percent of boys in grades 6-8).

The percent of students who say they are very interested hasn’t changed in the past 10 years of asking that question, Evans said, despite national interest and programs to boost student participation in STEM programs.

Roughly one-third of students say they are “somewhat” interested, and that group is heavily populated by minorities and low-income students. Evans said that group is evenly split between girls and boys.

This is interesting on several levels, she said. The methods used in schools and communities to attract and sustain student interest in STEM careers works really well for the students who are already interested–including girls, though girls constitute a smaller group, Evans said. But those methods don’t work to move students, especially girls, from the “somewhat interested” group to the “very interested” group.

“If the goal is to expand the pipeline, not just retain the very interested students, we need to think differently about the ways to get kids interested in STEM,” Evans said. “Our list of how kids want to learn about STEM careers, disaggregated by gender and interest level, is a good place to start those discussions.”

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Laura Ascione

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.