Tag Archives: STEM

Women in Computing To Decline To 22% by 2025, Study Warns

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New research warns that at the rate we’re going, the number of women in the computing workforce will decline to 22% from 24% by 2025 if nothing is done to encourage more of them to study computer science. From a USA Today report (shared by an anonymous reader): The research from Accenture and nonprofit group Girls Who Code says taking steps now to encourage more women to pursue a computer science education could triple the number of women in computing to 3.9 million in that same timeframe. Women account for 24% of computing jobs today, but could account for 39% by 2025, according to the report, Cracking the Gender Code. And greater numbers of women entering computer science could boost women’s cumulative earnings by $299 billion and help the U.S. fill the growing demand for computing talent, said Julie Sweet, Accenture’s group chief executive for North America.



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If You Want to Teach Physics Lab Right, Skip the Manual

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I was a graduate student when I taught my first class, a physics lab. There’s nothing unusual in this; university physics departments often hand labs over to graduate students. It’s a win-win, really. Departments need teachers, and grad students need experience.

Of course, I didn’t really know what to do, but no worries. I could follow a manual describing the experiments. In time, though, my ideas about labs changed. It started after a presentation I saw at a conference. I don’t recall the conference or where it was, but I remember the talk. It was about innovations in lab. One of the speakers discussed an “improvement” to the electric fields mapping lab.

This is a common lab during second semester physics. The basic idea is to explore the electric field around an electric charge or between two electrically charged plates. It’s not easy to measure the electric field. Instead, you cheat and measure something simpler—conducting paper.

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Image: Rhett Allain

The power supply connects to two points on black conducting paper. You can make these connections in whatever shape you like—two points, or two straight lines, or any two-dimensional shape, really. Using a voltmeter, you can map out lines of equipotential and use that to calculate the electric field. That is the basic idea. As far as electricity-magnetism labs go, it’s not too bad in that students can use this electric potential to create a plot of the electric field.

But wait! Isn’t this lab super tedious (rather than just plain tedious)? That’s where that conference talk comes in. One physicist came up with a modification: He’d have students use a probe to press various points on the conductive paper. The apparatus would automatically record the voltage as well as the x and y-coordinates. Boom. Instant data without the tedious recordings. Better, right?

It was at this point that I realized the student was essentially eliminated from the lab. Granted, the student probably was never really was involved, but this made it was obvious. What started as an investigation into the relationship between electric fields and electric potential became an exercise in data collection.

But what is the goal of a physics lab? I doubt all physics faculty will agree (and that’s OK), but this is what I think an introductory physics lab should do:

  • Provide opportunities to experimentally explore physics concepts covered in the lecture class.
  • Demonstrate experimental design and analysis of data.
  • Create theoretical models that agree with experimental data.
  • Teach students to communicate scientific ideas (with lab reports).
  • Expose students to basic tools like a voltmeter, oscilloscope, and computer programming.

In other words, a physics labs should encourage students to figure things out, not just follow instructions or collect data for data’s sake. Research backs this up. Students exposed to open-ended labs have better ideas about the nature of science. Here is the paper:

Open-ended versus guided laboratory activities:Impact on students’ beliefs about experimental physics. Bethany R. Wilcox and H. J. Lewandowski, Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 12, 020132 – Published 3 October 2016

How do you make a lab more open-ended? Here are some suggestions:

  • Keep the lab manual, but focus on ideas rather than procedures.
  • Introduce an idea and let students collect data in their own way. Yes, sometimes they’ll come up with sucky methods, but that’s OK.
  • Consider letting students start with play time. Seriously. Show them some equipment and let them try different things. I’ve found this especially effective in collision labs where I give students low friction carts and say “go”.

In the end, giving up control of the lab can be scary because you can’t be sure what happens. But isn’t that just like science—and life?

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How Women Are Harassed Out of Science

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When Joan was an undergraduate, in the 1970s, she asked her boyfriend why one of his roommates was finishing up a Ph.D. while another, in the same department, still had several years left.

“Barbara’s rigid,” her boyfriend said. His other roommate, Karen, had slept with her advisor, but Barbara refused to sleep with hers. Chuckling with approval, the boyfriend recounted how Karen had asked to use his waterbed and left a pair of sexy underwear scrunched in his sheets.

Today, this kind of quid pro quo may be less common, but sexual harassment at universities persists. The spate of lawsuits, investigations, and recent resignations at the University of California, Berkeley, University of Chicago, and UCLA,  accompanied by older cases leaked to the press and an increase in women going public about their experiences, have made that clear. Grad students and postdocs are particularly vulnerable, because their futures depend so completely on good recommendations from professors. And STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) students are more dependent than others. Their career progress hinges on invitations to work on professors’ grants or—if students have their own projects—access to big data sets or expensive lab equipment controlled by overwhelmingly male senior faculty.

A 2015 report that one of us co-authored found that one in three women science professors surveyed reported sexual harassment. There’s been a lot of talk about how to keep women in the STEM pipeline, but it fails to make a crucial connection: One reason the pipeline leaks is that women are harassed out of science. And sexual harassment is just the beginning.

* * *

We recently spoke with a group of senior scientists who confirmed the prevalence of sexual harassment. Kim Barrett, the graduate dean at the University of California, San Diego, said she did not know of a single senior woman in gastroenterology, her subfield, who had not been sexually harassed. Margaret Leinen, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, described a conversation she once overheard between one male and five female scientists at a meeting where harassment was being discussed. “I don’t see what the fuss is about,” said the man. “I’ve never met anyone who has been sexually harassed.” The women just looked at each other. “Well, now you’ve met five,” they said.

Another established scientist—who, like several women we interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing professional repercussions for speaking out—expressed specific concern about sexual harassment in the summer training courses that feed into prestigious academic jobs. She recalled the lead professor of one such course taking photos of a student, zooming in on her breasts, and making jokes about her. In another course, a different lead professor hand-fed ice cream to a graduate student. “It can be devastating,” she said. “[It happens] at the moment when a woman feels she is finally getting to be a real scientist and one of the gang.”

Other scientists worried about harassment at annual conferences. Leinen, who was president of the American Geophysical Union last year, said that shortly before their annual conference a young woman scientist—emboldened by a resolution widely seen as censure of Berkeley astronomer Geoffrey Marcy—came forward with a report. A colleague had sexually harassed her during graduate school, and continued to do so at AGU’s annual meeting. The AGU sprang into action by holding a town-hall session at the conference, and is now discussing concrete steps to address sexual harassment at its next meeting, according to Leinen.

The American Association of Physical Anthropology was similarly rocked by a sexual assault allegation at its annual conference last year. The women we spoke with in that association agreed that conferences, fieldwork, and business travel are the worst. One recalled a male colleague who once said the only reason to go to conferences is to have an affair. A 2014 study of anthropologists and other field scientists found that 64 percent of 666 respondents had experienced some sort of sexual harassment while doing fieldwork.  

Then, there’s pregnancy harassment. One former doctoral student recalled having her job at a large research center cut due to “lack of funding” when she told her advisor she was expecting, only to see the position offered the next week to one of her friends. “I confided in my department chair that I believed I had been fired and discriminated against due to my pregnancy,” the student wrote. “She replied (and I can quote from memory verbatim because I was so horrified) ‘Are you sure? Because women in your condition have pregnancy brain and can often misinterpret situations.’ I realized I was screwed. No job, no, support, and no health insurance for my upcoming delivery.”

This student’s experience is far too common. Pregnant undergraduates and graduate students are frequently told that their only option is to withdraw from their programs, with no guarantee of readmission. Withdrawing can mean losing academic progress, tuition, fellowships, on-campus jobs, health insurance, and sometimes housing, according to the university policies we have studied and the people we have spoken with. (We currently have a National Science Foundation grant to work on this issue; the views expressed in this article are our own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the NSF.)

Postdocs, who fuel scientific research in the U.S., are equally at risk. For years, we’ve heard stories of Principal Investigators (PIs) who insist that pregnant postdocs return to the lab weeks after giving birth. A 2009 survey of postdocs by the social welfare researcher Mary Ann Mason and her colleagues found that of the women who entered their postdoc program intending to be research professors, 41 percent who had children during their postdoc decided against that career. By contrast, men who became fathers during their postdoc years changed their trajectory half as often—roughly the same rate as childless postdocs with no intention of having kids.

Our forthcoming report, Parents in the Pipeline, discusses postdocs’ experiences of parenthood. Nearly 20 percent of the roughly 1,000 postdocs who responded to our survey said their PI’s response to their parenthood had a negative impact on their training experience overall.  According to our preliminary results, only 59 percent of postdoc women respondents said their institution had a maternity leave policy that applied to them, and just 15 percent of all respondents had access to a parental leave policy that covered care taking. Nearly one in 10 of the postdoc respondents were denied leave altogether. “No one explicitly said ‘Do not take leave,’” reported one scientist, who instead faced “threats of pulling funding, constant pressure and reminders mere weeks after birth … insulting remarks about my inability to complete deadlines and astonishing hostility as if having a child equals slacking off.” We have heard many similar stories through our website that’s dedicated to this issue.

Why don’t women just wait to have children until they get their first professor jobs? They can’t: The average age for getting a doctorate in science and engineering fields is nearly 32, right when female fertility significantly decreases. Even after graduating, researchers spend upwards of five years as a postdoc before moving into faculty positions, and there is evidence that those who spend more time as a postdoc are the ones who advance into tenure-track research positions.

* * *

Wherever it occurs, sexual harassment of students or professors is a violation of Title IX when there’s federal funding involved. There almost always is. Sexual harassment of professors, students, or postdoc employees may violate employment laws as well. Moreover, it’s profligate as public policy: The U.S. faces a projected deficit of 1 million college-educated STEM workers in the coming decade, according to a recent White House report. Women can fill that gap; nationwide, educators, activists, politicians, and celebrities are all scrambling to encourage girls to choose STEM careers. Yet once those girls reach the final stages of their education—after dedicating over two decades of study—we lose them. The sunk cost of training a postdoc, conservatively, is $500,000—much of it public funds.

Here’s how we can stop harassing women out of science—two easier steps and two harder ones. The first is to break the silence surrounding sexual harassment. The decade-long behavior of Marcy, the Berkeley astronomer, was an open secret in the field until other astronomers finally organized in support of his victims, leading to his resignation. After molecular biologist Jason Lieb was found to have sexually assaulted a student and harassed others at the University of Chicago, the university came under fire for hiring him because it had received warnings that Lieb had been accused of harassment at two other universities.

“Reputation is the way we control behavior,” points out Ben Barres, a Stanford neurobiologist and trans man who has been vocal about the treatment of women in STEM. “These are serial perps. They go to another school, and the same behavior starts at the next school. Why don’t we make this public?” In Congress, Representative Jackie Speier is calling for a requirement that universities report findings of sexual harassment to federal funding agencies.

The second easy step is for funding agencies to send a clear message, backed by Title IX enforcement: Universities need to stop harassment and other illegal behavior towards students who become parents. Our preliminary survey data show that 53 percent of postdoc women report that their PI was very supportive of their pregnancy or parenthood; clearly, hounding mothers out of science is not mandated by the nature of scientific research. Discriminating against women based on pregnancy, or against either parent based on family responsibilities, is illegal sex discrimination. The lack of codified leave policies at institutions leaves the door open to unbridled discretion. Institutions need formal policies, if only as a risk-management measure.  

The first hard step: Universities need a best-practice sexual harassment policy that protects the rights of survivors while also giving alleged harassers due process—not immunity. The hysteria suggesting that these two goals are irreconcilable is unjustified. Many advocates are working on this, from well-established national groups like American Association of University Women to grassroots efforts such as Know Your IX.    

The final step is hard because it involves our wallets. The National Science Foundation provides supplemental funding for graduate students and postdocs working on NSF-supported projects who need parental leave. This funding makes it possible for PIs to cover both the parental leave and the salary of a temporary replacement. Yet these programs typically only apply where an institution has a formal leave policy. They also need to be adopted by more funding agencies.

“Don’t bother doing a postdoc,” a male neuroscientist advised aspiring postdocs who want to have kids. His advice? “Work at McDonalds, which would pay you equally or more, would give you more respect, and [offer] a ray of hope through promotion.”

If the U.S. wants to compete in a globalized world, where science and technology are developing at warp speed, we can’t afford to keep harassing women—or anyone—out of science.

The Complex Data on Girls in STEM

In an effort to measure students’ understanding of basic engineering and technology principles, a new national assessment aims to move beyond multiple-choice questions and instead focus on troubleshooting in real-world scenarios. For example, students are tasked with designing a healthier habitat for a pet iguana, or building safer bike lanes in a city.

If that innovation is the good news, here is the flipside: Overall, just 43 percent of U.S. eighth graders tested met or exceeded the benchmark for proficiency on the exam, according to results released Tuesday for the first round of testing. The data also showed a gender gap, but not the one that conventional wisdom might have predicted.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is given to a representative sampling of the nation’s students to gauge their proficiency in reading, writing, math, and other core subjects including civics and science. Known as “the nation’s report card,” it’s one of the few means of comparing student achievement among states. The first-ever Technology and Engineering Literacy (TEL) assessment was given in 2014.

Tuesday’s results reveal students’ ability in “thinking through problems systematically, using technology and engineering information built into each task to arrive at the best solutions,” according to the NAEP report.

Why does this matter? These are skills that experts say Americans must have if they are to compete in a global marketplace. U.S. students typically have middling performance on international assessments gauging math and science ability, as well as problem-solving skills. That being said, it’s important to remember NAEP is just one indicator of student knowledge and skills, and it’s not designed to evaluate the merits of a particular educational program or intervention.

Breaking down the NAEP scores by gender, girls averaged 151 points (out of a possible 300), three points higher than for boys. Measured another way, 45 percent of females met or exceeded the proficient level, compared with 42 percent of males. The chart below highlights some of the gender gaps by race and ethnicity.

The gaps were far wider between students from low-income families and their more affluent peers—a 28-point difference in proficiency levels. And the disparity was most dramatic among racial groups: 56 percent of white students met or exceeded the benchmark for proficiency, compared with just 18 percent of their black peers. (More on this angle from Philissa Cramer of Chalkbeat.)

So why did so much of this week’s media call with reporters focus on the relatively smaller lead girls held over boys on the new assessment? That was because “we did not expect this pattern,” explained Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.“It looks like girls have the ability and critical-thinking skills to succeed in fields of technology and engineering, and that is worth noting,” said Carr, whose organization oversees NAEP, explaining the likely reaction to the latest data.

By comparison, the gaps in socioeconomic status and race have long been evidenced in NAEP scores for other core subjects: “It’s sort of the same old story,” Carr said.

To be sure, girls and women are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) advanced coursework, degree programs, and careers. A wealth of initiatives—both public and private—are aimed at boosting those numbers.

While the “Girls Outperform Boys” headlines might grab the public’s eye, the underlying story is more complicated, said Karen Peterson, the chief executive of the National Girls Collaborative Project. The long-term goal, Peterson said, isn’t getting females to best their male counterparts on a particular test but to increase their persistence and resilience in STEM studies so that those early kernels of interest translate into meaningful careers.

“I worry about the knee-jerk reaction when we compartmentalize these kinds of test results by gender,” Peterson said. “Someone is going to take this headline and say ‘We need a new initiative aimed at boys.’ In reality, the training and work we do with educators around increasing girls’ interest in STEM are teaching strategies that are going to help boys, too. This is not zero-sum competition.”

Two other nuggets in the new report caught my attention: First off, close to two-thirds of eighth graders (63 percent) said that “their family members most often taught them about building things, fixing things, or understanding how things work.” Comparatively, 19 percent of students said they taught themselves, and “13 percent of students reported that they learned from their teachers,” according to the report. That suggests the influences of a student’s home life, once again, cannot be underestimated in how it influences their in-school achievement.

Also worth noting: This assessment, NAEP’s first new test in about a decade, was a long time coming. (When the planning began, there was no such thing as an iPhone.) Among the challenges: making sure the questions weren’t predicated on technology that could become obsolete before the first group of students even got a chance to answer them.

At the same time, it’s important not to over-interpret these results, said Professor Nancy Songer, the dean of Drexel University’s School of Education. It’s unknown whether the technology and engineering literacy skills being measured will translate into success in these fields later in a student’s academic career. However, the TEL appears to be a valuable addition to the testing toolbox, Songer said.

The best assessments, said Songer, are the ones that feel less like a stand-alone test and more like extended classroom activities—reinforcing the kind of interactive learning that’s increasingly being encouraged, particularly in the sciences.

“Tests that rely heavily on multiple choice are very reliable, but they’re not giving you really rich information about kids’ critical-thinking or problem-solving,” said Songer, who has advised other assessment developers, including the College Board. “That’s why the (TEL) scenarios are so valuable – the kids have enough time and contextual information to demonstrate what they can, and cannot, do. That’s exactly where tests need to go.”


This article appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.

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