According to new research spearheaded by Prof. Nilanjana Dasgupta (FRS ’06-07 and ’12-13), women’s participation in group projects is a critical factor to improve confidence in their knowledge and, ultimately, their perseverance in STEM-related academic programs.
The study suggests that the balance of gender dynamics in the classroom forms the crucial link to outcomes for women as they begin their postsecondary studies in a STEM field. STEM is the acronym that designates academic coursework in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (and, according to recent discourse, now also includes computer science).
Evenly balanced learning environments—or even small groups where women have an opportunity to participate more directly—have been linked to a significant effect in boosting women’s confidence, promoting their success in coursework by “reducing worry and anxiety,” and increasing their resilience in STEM programs. Dasgupta’s research also demonstrates that “gender parity” in classroom dynamics may not be enough to help women experience this confidence. Instead, more direct efforts to arrange classroom configurations in a way that supports women’s learning and engagement may be necessary to alleviate gender stereotypes, so that female students are emboldened to participate at higher levels.
Based on the findings, Dasgupta recommends that instructors adopt a classroom management strategy that fosters better engagement by women, since this will have a measurable and positive effect on women’s participation levels and ultimately on their aspirations for a career in STEM.
The findings reported by Dr. Dasgupta and her team emerged from an experiment conducted with 120 undergraduate, engineering students. The study deployed female research assistants who joined ongoing laboratory projects and group assignments in engineering classes. These groups were arranged in various configurations of male and female undergraduates. The researchers had been trained to behave consistently while monitoring the verbal engagement by female students in these groups. By evaluating the responses and behaviors of female students in groups where there was either a balance or a disparity of female students to their male counterparts, the data showed that women’s engagement increased in contexts with more females.
The study appeared this week in an online pre-publication edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. PNAS is the official scientific journal of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funded Dr. Dasgupta’s research.
To learn more about Prof. Dasgupta’s research findings, visit the UMass Media Relations article on her study. The PBS News Hour, New England Public Radio, and the Science News blog also covered the story.
Since 2003, CRF has offered the Family Research Scholars Program, which provides selected UMass and Five Colleges faculty with the time, technical expertise, peer mentorship, and national expert consultation to prepare a large grant proposal for their research support.
Drew Thiemann, MPPA '16