Research Highlights / Full Story

Addressing the Problem

Diversity in the STEM workforce and its impact on society is an increasingly important issue for educators, business leaders, and policy makers, particularly as the U.S. faces increasing pressure from our international competitors.

"Numerous studies have shown that the most creative and innovative ideas derive from teams that are highly diverse," notes Harvey Palmer, dean of RIT's Kate Gleason College of Engineering, the only engineering college in the nation named in honor of a female engineer. "Furthermore, women represent half of the intellectual capital in our society as well as half of all those who depend upon the myriad products and services that comprise the global economy."

"The systemic underrepresentation of women and minorities in STEM disciplines in the U.S. hampers our ability to develop new ideas and new ways of addressing scientific and techno- logical challenges," adds Sophia Maggelakis, professor of mathematics and dean of RIT's College of Science. "At RIT, we have sought to study the educational and cultural factors that have exacerbated this problem and to develop programs that can encourage female participation in STEM disciplines."

These efforts include research projects on the educational and workplace environment for female scientists and engineers as well as the development of outreach programs that seek to encourage interest in science and math among women and girls at all levels, from the elementary and secondary level to college.

Changing the Culture

"A key factor in the underrepresentation issue is the classroom environment," notes Laura Tubbs, professor of chemistry and associate dean of the College of Science. "As an example, research has shown that in classes, at all levels of education, boys are called on more often and are given more leeway for wrong answers. This can enhance negative stereotypes, such as boys are better at math, and create a negative learning environment for girls and women."

Tubbs led one of the first programs in the nation designed to provide teacher training and mentoring to impact the STEM classroom environment for women and girls. She has since developed a series of workshops and professional devel- opment modules designed to promote equal gender treatment in the classroom.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the initial project provided training for a group of RIT STEM professors and science and math teachers and guidance counselors from local high schools on their teaching and mentoring practices. In addition, the team interviewed female students, in multiple age groups, to gauge potential barriers for female learners and compare teacher and student impressions.

"As we went through this process, all of the teachers involved, myself included, were really shocked at how unequal our classroom environments were," Tubbs says. "Teachers were often unaware of how their actions impacted female students. Even seemingly normal classroom interactions, such as asking for answers by a show of hands, were shown to favor male students."

The research led to the creation of a series of workshops designed to enhance the use of teaching methods that address gender bias. Tubbs has also worked with the College of Science and the Division of Academic Affairs to create classroom training modules for use in the univer- sity's new faculty orientation and professional development activities.

"Laura's work in this area has assisted the college in creating a better environment for our female students, which has helped improve recruitment and retention," Maggelakis adds.

Analyzing Self-Efficacy

Additional RIT research has sought to assess factors outside the classroom that can create a positive environment for STEM female students.

Margaret Bailey, professor of mechanical engineering and faculty associate to the provost for female faculty, is working with a multi-university team to assess the impact of work experience, including cooperative education and internships, on self-efficacy and retention, particularly among female engineering college students.

"Self-efficacy—a person's belief in his or her own competency—is seen as a key factor in academic success and in future career achievement," notes Bailey. "By analyzing the impact of co-op on self- efficacy we hope to enhance understanding of how it can be used as a tool to improve confidence, self-awareness, and overall academic success."

Through a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation, the team is surveying students in undergraduate engineering programs at four universities: Northeastern, RIT, the University of Wyoming, and Virginia Tech. They are assessing work, career, and academic self- efficacy between male and female students and between those who have had co-ops or internships and those who haven't.

Initial findings show that prior to co-op, male students have higher academic self-efficacy than their female counterparts, even among those with similar grade- point averages. In addition, women surveyed indicated that they gained more from the use of support services, such as mentoring, academic advising, and membership within professional societies. Female respondents also reported higher levels of career self- efficacy, which involves their ability to self-appraise, gather occupational information, and plan for the future.

"This seems to indicate that mentoring and other support services play a much greater role in the academic experience for female students," Bailey says. "It also shows a link between mentoring and success in one's future career."

The team is currently preparing to survey the student cohort during their fourth year in engineering. For students engaged in co-ops, the survey will be taken after their second round of work experience. The research will assess if significant differences in the impact on self-efficacy are seen between the genders and between those who co-op and those who don't. Bailey presented initial findings at the 2012 Conference for Industry and Education Collaboration, sponsored by the American Society for Engineering Education.

Creating a STEM Engagement "Ecosystem"

Faculty and administrators at RIT are utilizing the outcomes of the research in this area to define the key elements of a broader initiative that builds upon training programs and outreach to create an "ecosystem" designed to increase enthu- siasm for, and participation in, STEM fields. Women in Engineering (WE@RIT), Women in Technology (WIT), Women in Computing (WIC), and Women in Science (WISe) all focus on offering educational and social activities, and volunteer and co-op opportunities for RIT students, as well as providing numerous on- and off- campus events and camps throughout the year for girls in grades K through 12.

Palmer notes that the engagement of college students in these outreach activ- ities has a significant unanticipated benefit.

"In the College of Engineering we have seen a direct correlation between college student involvement with these outreach efforts and an increase in the retention of these women students," he says.

The longest running of the programs is WE@RIT, which was founded in 2003 by a team of engineering faculty and staff led by Margaret Bailey. It currently reaches over 2,300 students and offers a number of on-campus events for area school children, including Girls Explore Adven- tures in Robotics (GEARs) and the Everyday Engineering Summer Camp. It also goes into local classrooms through the Traveling Engineering Activity Kit (TEAK) program, an NSF-funded initiative where RIT engineering students help introduce grade schoolers to science and engineering concepts.

It is also part of a broader College of Engineering initiative designed to make math and science more relatable for middle and high school students. The Relevant Engineering in Math and Science project, which is funded by the Toyota USA Foundation, includes the development of on-site and online activities and education modules, many of which will be woven into WE@RIT's outreach efforts.

"WE@RIT is unique in the way that we incorporate a multi-tiered teaching team of engineering students, faculty, and K-12 teachers to lead, inspire, and teach girls and young women in grades 4-12 about engineering, creativity, design, teamwork, and technology," says Jodi Carville, the program's director. "We do this by a variety of pre-engineering outreach programs specifically created for girls with grade level in mind."

"It has been shown that STEM outreach efforts are most effective when they begin at an early age," adds Palmer. "Girls as young as the fourth grade are already beginning to form lasting impressions of themselves and their future roles in society."

WIT, created in 2005, WIC, in 2009, and WISe, in 2011, are also working to develop a stronger and more supportive social and educational environment for current and future students.

"Through the creation of a broad community of support we can help current students excel, assist alumni in giving back to the university, and provide an easy path for future female scientists and engineers to follow," adds Betsy Dell, the Paul A. Miller Professor in the College of Applied Science and Technology, who heads up WIT.

WIT runs a series of outreach programs that reach 4-12th grade girls, including the Girl Scout Technology program for middle school students and the Tech Squad Girls Technology Workshop for high school students. These programs are designed to provide a basic under- standing of engineering concepts, while allowing participants to develop and test experiments in RIT's packaging science, electrical, mechanical, and civil engineering technology laboratories.

WIC recruits current computing students to visit local elementary schools through the program Introduction to Computing Through PicoCrickets.

"A PicoCricket is a small, basic computer that can be programmed to play music or make dance-like movements," says Sharon Mason, associate professor of networking security and systems adminis- tration and director of WIC. "We train computing students how to use them and then we go into elementary schools and utilize the crickets to explain basic computing concepts. It is a great way to make computing fun and accessible."

"It is our hope that the continued efforts of these outreach initiatives will ultimately enhance the overall number of women and minorities going into science and engineering fields and allow these disciplines to more directly mirror the national population as a whole," adds Tubbs, a member of the steering committee for WISe.

Making a Difference

The combination of research and outreach has greatly enhanced RIT's national recognition in the field. For example, WE@RIT won the 2008 Women in Engineering Program Award from the Women in Engineering Proactive Network. It has also begun to have an impact on female enrollment and retention in STEM disciplines as both numbers have increased over the last three years. However, all individuals involved in the effort agree that there is still much work to be done.

"We need to do more here on campus to make the environment even better for women and minorities, and create a broader national focus on STEM education. We've seen that it does make a difference," notes Palmer.

On a positive note, for women alumni, the change in environment, at RIT at least, is already noticeable.

"When I first came to RIT there was no organized effort to assist individual female students or build a broader community of women scientists and engineers at RIT," notes Jacquie Mozrall, an industrial engineering graduate who is now professor of industrial and systems engineering and serves as the associate dean of RIT's College of Engineering. "Today we have a significant infra- structure, in multiple colleges, to assist current students and encourage future generations of women to enter and succeed in the STEM fields."