Wising Up on STEM Completion

November 8, 2010

ARLINGTON, Va. -- For students studying science and engineering, gender is the biggest predictor of completion. At least half of women consider dropping out or aiming for a lesser degree during their doctoral studies because of issues stemming from discouraging advisers, uncomfortable work environments, sexist attitudes and other gender biases.

That -- along with a persistent gender gap in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields -- is why researchers at Arizona State University spent the last four years creating a resource to support women in STEM: a website called CareerWISE, which they unveiled here at the National Science Foundation last week.

“We aim to reduce these women’s decisions to leave their programs, if that decision involves discouragement,” said Bianca L. Bernstein, an Arizona State professor of counseling and principal investigator of the CareerWISE research program, the $3.2 million NSF grant project that led to the website. “We’re taking a completely different tack, and frankly, it’s experimental.”

The site, which Bernstein describes as an “online psychological education intervention and prevention program,” aims to increase retention of women in the STEM fields by addressing the various challenges they face. A woman visiting the web page is met with situational questions: Do your adviser’s priorities differ markedly from your own? As a woman, are you expected to feel or behave in certain ways? Do you wonder how starting a family fits in with your career? Are you having trouble fitting in with the others in your group? Do you wish you were in a more collegial environment?

This HerStory video featured on the home page of CareerWISE interviews Jean Andino, an associate professor of civil and chemical engineering at Arizona State, about issues she faces in her field and ways to solve them.

More women are studying and working in science and engineering, but men continue to outnumber them; in some fields, women make up a mere 20 percent of bachelor’s degree earners, according to an American Association of University Women report published in March. What’s more, the women who do become faculty in STEM fields are less likely to be satisfied with their careers.

CareerWISE is an important component to addressing problems in Ph.D. policies and environments, said Daniel Denecke, program director of best practices and publications for the Council of Graduate Schools. Denecke, who attended the site launch, said the CGS’s Ph.D. Completion Project -- comprising both completion data and interviews of students who didn’t finish -- has shown these issues are real, and CareerWISE is “a great piece of the puzzle” of how to resolve them.

“A lot of these obstacles that this resource is preparing students to face and to conquer are the very obstacles that we’re also trying to resolve on the institutional side,” Denecke said. “I think attacking it from both sides is kind of an ideal approach.” CGS has found that women take 7 percent to 10 percent longer to complete their STEM doctorates than men do.

CareerWISE researchers hope to strengthen women’s ability to manage the personal and interpersonal challenges they encounter while completing graduate degrees and beginning their careers. The problems Ph.D. candidates face will follow them into their careers, Bernstein said, so the site, which is not exclusive to Ph.D. candidates but does focus on them, will “inoculate participants to anticipate and be able to respond to issues in the future.”

The site’s features include a four-step problem-solving model, modules to help individuals understand how they'll react in different situations, and hundreds of clips in which women in STEM share their personal experiences.

The CareerWISE Problem Solving Method -- "the key strategy for building resilience" -- uses step-by-step lessons to help women assess the problem, specify the outcome, strategize, and execute and evaluate.

According to NSF statistics cited in the AAUW report, despite the fact that women make up the majority of college students generally, only 88,371 of them graduated in STEM fields in 2007, compared to 138,874 of their male counterparts. In 2007, men outnumbered women in science and engineering careers, 73 percent to 27 percent. Gender biases -- conscious and unconscious -- often hinder women’s progress in these fields, the report says.

Now that CareerWISE is up and running, its creators will continue to evaluate how users progress; they are particularly interested in how a user’s demographics affect what she takes away from the site, and what women learn from different parts of the site. The researchers also plan to expand CareerWISE to include in-depth communication training and interactive simulations of different academic and employment scenarios.

Robert K. Atkinson, an associate professor of educational technology and co-principal investigator on the project, is the only man on the six-person CareerWISE research team. He says he had “selfish motives” for participating: if his daughters decide to follow in his footsteps and pursue Ph.D.s, they’ll have a resource to help them along the way.

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