Occasionally I see online comments challenging the supposed need for more STEM graduates. These writers point to a shortage of good-paying STEM positions for graduates entering the workforce. They may need to rethink their arguments.
The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce recently published, “Good Jobs Are Back: College Graduates Are First in Line, 2015.” “Good jobs” are defined as ones with salaries of $53,000 and up. 881,000 good STEM jobs were added to the workforce between 2010 and 2014. Let students know the economic recovery has been good to STEM and refer them to the CEW report.
Premedical students hate organic chemistry. It’s true.
While preparing a poster for the Medical Library Association Annual Conference, I did a literature review of barriers to retention for undergraduates in premedical programs. I expected premeds to name required science courses beyond biology – chemistry, physics, and mathematics. However, I didn’t expect organic chemistry to be singled out. Check out the free article in Academic Medicine, “The Leaky Pipeline: Factors Associated with Early Decline in Interest in Premedical Studies among Underrepresented Minority Undergraduate Students” to read about the negative impact of chemistry on premeds’ interest in pursuing a medical career.
Last month my first response was outrage when I read Sir Tim Hunt’s remarks about “girls” disrupting science in mixed gender labs by making men fall in love with them and crying when they are criticized. No wonder female undergraduates feel out-of-place and even unwanted in the STEM disciplines, I thought. As a woman who has worked in labs over the course of two pregnancies without crying, or even vomiting, I was fuming. Fortunately, his remarks were not simply dismissed, and Hunt has suffered negative consequences for his offensive comments.
The institutional responses from the University College London and the Royal Society were important for young women to witness. But I hope what will make a lasting impression is all the women scientists who took to Twitter to cleverly defend their dedication and professionalism at #distractinglysexy. The outpouring of scientists being “distractingly sexy” on the job has introduced followers to women of all ages and races practicing science in all its forms – engineering, chemistry, ecology, genetics, biochemistry, wildlife management, lab work, field work and more. Many of the scientists suited up in their alluring masks and hazard suits they use on a daily basis, giving young women a glimpse of real scientific practice.
So, what started out as a potential disaster for STEM ended up being a fantastic promotional event for reaching out to young women through social media. Would anyone else like to make some inane comments about women in science?
We all know that STEM retention is not a simple, linear system that can be fixed instantly with one or two modifications. A brave team of international researchers has taken on the challenge of modeling what the system of STEM retention might look like using data from first-year engineering students at a European university. You have to locate “Considering Student Retention as a Complex System: a Possible Way Forward for Enhancing Student Retention” by Forsman et al. in European Journal of Engineering Education to get the full impact of the multilayer minimum spanning tree approach they used to create the model.
One glimpse at the visualized mass of spider webs will tell you why progress in retention seems minimal and slow. The model contains about 80 elements of student life, e.g., math preparedness, study skills, quality of teaching, yet few of the elements are dominant. Many of the elements are interconnected both vertically (e.g., student, class, college) and horizontally (e.g., one student takes courses in multiple departments). The authors conclude, as many universities have already realized, that retention interventions must be made at numerous points in the university system to create impact, there is a time lag in results and assessment, and any one intervention will make a small contribution to the overall progress.
So, I’m actually trying to be encouraging here. If you have been trying to improve STEM or general retention and have seen even a slight correlation between library activities and retention, then you’re contributing to student retention and have reason to celebrate!
Image attribution: The protein interaction network of Treponema pallidum by Hauser et al. via Wikimedia Commons.
I finally found it – a publication in which a librarian is involved in a STEM retention initiative! The journal, College Teaching, published “Embedding Multiple Literacies into STEM Curricula” by Soules et al. in 2014. A team of six STEM faculty and one STEM librarian took on the daunting challenge of changing pedagogy and increasing retention at California State University, East Bay.
Their approach was to use multiple literacies to increase science learning in one upper division and three introductory STEM courses. They based activities on standards and techniques developed for K-12: Next Generation Science Standards, Common Core State Standards Initiative, and SQ3R. The librarian contributed by training students in information literacy and SQ3R, holding office hours for individual help on research papers, reviewing and commenting on draft papers, and creating online tutorials.
What were the results? Well, it was hard to tell because of all the variables. The faculty did not all use the same pedagogical tools in their courses, making comparisons between courses difficult. Although in general, the students resisted doing anything that increased the amount of time they needed to spend on a course. Within courses, the team found that students had differing responses to the reading, writing, and information activities. The team reports a learning gain of 17% in the chemistry class and 31% in the physics class, but cannot attribute the gains to their interventions, again because of numerous variables.
Disappointing . . . but still valuable. This team used teaching approaches with sound theoretical foundations that are worth trying again (which they are, by the way). Their work is a reminder that it is important to arrange something close to a control group to show the effectiveness of an intervention. And these faculty members had the foresight to involve a librarian from the beginning. Did I mention that librarian Aline Soules is the first author?
Image attribution: “Csueb view” by Jennifer Williams – originally posted to Flickr as csueb view. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Csueb_view.jpg#/media/File:Csueb_view.jpg
Recently The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that under 30% of Americans are science literate. You read that right – over 70% of us are science illiterate. Half of the country thinks that humans were rubbing elbows with dinosaurs. In “Teaching Science So It Sticks,” Dan Berrett describes some of the efforts universities are making to increase science literacy among non-STEM majors to produce more knowledgeable citizens.
If you’ve ever dropped into this blog before, then the teaching methods being applied will sound familiar. The University of Oregon has changed up the names of introductory science courses, for example, “Introduction to Geology” has become “People, Rocks, & Fire.” The faculty use group-work assignments and “flipped” classrooms. Bard College offers a winter intersession course in which the students do research in a citizen science project.
Basically, faculty are making the science content more relevant and engaging for the students – that is what makes the science stick. This is exactly the kind of teaching STEM majors request when they are surveyed or interviewed about the difficulties of completing a science major. Even though they are talented in science, they still need the social context and applications of science to stay motivated in their studies and eventual careers. STEM retention initiatives focusing on pedagogy could learn a lot from these “lowly” science literacy initiatives.
Image: Attributed to John Scalzi, “The Image You’ve Slogged through the Whole Set to See,” 2007. Some rights reserved.
Guest blogger: Laura Palumbo
Chemistry & Physics Librarian/Science Data Specialist
Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
The recent post in this blog on the lack of self-efficacy of women in STEM reflects the findings of much of the current literature: that women tend to underestimate their abilities in math and related STEM fields. Encouragement from parents, teachers, and faculty can help change this self-perception. In a 2014 Google white paper, Women Who Choose Computer Science- What Really Matters, research showed “. . . that encouragement and exposure are key controllable indicators for whether or not young women decide to pursue a Computer Science degree” (p. 2). With facts like these in mind, this past Fall I opted to teach a one-credit seminar for freshmen, along with our engineering librarian, titled “Closing the Gap: Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.”
These seminars, named Byrne Seminars after the family who donated the funds to create them in 2007, allow new students at Rutgers to explore a variety of fields of research, taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty who are passionate about their subjects. For our seminar, we decided that our goals would be to enable students to explore career opportunities in STEM; learn about past and present contributions of women in STEM; understand the various reasons for the existence of the ongoing gender gap in STEM; and as a final project, create Wikipedia entries for women in STEM. Fifteen enthusiastic students completed our first seminar.
The lack of representation of women in Wikipedia was noticed by feminists such as Adrienne Wadewitz, who began encouraging women to edit Wikipedia. By having our students become editors and creators of entries for women in STEM, we have raised awareness of this issue, and provided a small measure of correction. Of course, being librarians we didn’t neglect the opportunities for information literacy instruction during this exercise! Several good resources for teaching with Wikipedia exist through the Wikimedia Foundation, as well as articles by librarians who are using Wikipedia to teach information literacy.
In addition to this project, we had students review and discuss the literature around the gender gap in STEM fields. Concurrent with this, we arranged for our students to visit the labs of two of our female scientists at Rutgers, and brought in women who are working in STEM industries as guest speakers. By exploring the literature around the persistent gender gap in STEM, and by combining this with exposure to successful women scientists, we are providing encouragement which we hope will lead to improved self-efficacy for a new class of future STEM leaders.
Thanks to Laura for sharing her inspiring work on STEM retention. If anyone else has an idea, service, or program to share, I’d be happy to post it on Science Retention Librarian. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most of us have heard about self-efficacy being key to academic persistence. But have you heard about “tinkering and technical self-efficacy”? These are important aspects of self-efficacy for engineering students. Unfortunately, there are large populations of potential engineering students who lack belief in their competence in these areas.
In a 1997 study of STEM students by Seymour and Hewitt, many of the female engineering students interviewed revealed they lacked confidence in labs because they had rarely tinkered with machines or other products before college. A very recent article, “Tinkering and Technical Self-Efficacy of Engineering Students at the Community College,” by Baker et al. reports the results of surveying community college students about their tinkering and technical self-efficacy. The study population, which was composed of a significant percentage of underrepresented students in STEM, scored low in both areas. These two studies focus on an aspect of self-efficacy that may be holding women and underrepresented groups back in engineering.
How does this problem connect with the academic library? Many libraries are introducing makerspaces, which give students the opportunity to design and tinker. It would probably benefit many students entering a university engineering program, whether as first-years or transfers, to attend a “Tinkering Camp” in the summer before school starts. Engineering programs and libraries could collaborate to provide the variety of tools and technology needed in makerspaces to build up student confidence in the ability to tinker and arrive at technical solutions to problems. A makerspace staffed by library employees could also be a neutral, non-threatening place to explore tools and systems, before labs and grading start.
Makerspaces – a tool in engineering student persistence? It just might work.
Apparently English and history majors aren’t the only students quizzed by relatives and friends about what type of work they expect to find after graduation. Undergraduate females majoring in mathematics report in a recent study that they are frequently questioned about career options in mathematics, and even worse, they aren’t sure what the options are. Katrina Piatek-Jimenez interviewed 12 women in her study, “On the Persistence and Attrition of Women in Mathematics,” to examine in part why women who major in mathematics frequently move into careers not involving mathematics.
The students in this study seem to indicate women leave mathematics because they aren’t made aware of the career options available to them. The majority of the young women interviewed wanted careers that helped others. Beyond becoming secondary math teachers, they weren’t clear on how they could apply mathematics to helping. Several of the students in the study turned to their professors for career advice and discovered “their professors did not appear to know much about careers outside of academia either” (p.28). This isn’t too surprising, since the professors wanted to stay in academics, they probably never paid much attention to other careers.
Lack of knowledge about career options is a reason for STEM attrition that I’ve read again and again. There is a need for faculty, librarians, and career counselors to gather career information, make it accessible to STEM students in the first two years of college, and make them accountable for exploring it as part of coursework. We lose too many talented STEM students because they have no idea what careers are available, or because they have misperceptions of what STEM careers are like.
The CIRTL Network is “committed to advancing the teaching of STEM disciplines in higher education.” To improve STEM teaching, CIRTL focuses on the preparation of graduate students to become effective faculty and STEM education researchers. As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, the quality of STEM instruction is a barrier to retention for many undergraduates. CIRTL has the potential to be a rich resource and learning community for librarians who are seeking to contribute to retention among STEM majors.
CIRTL offers numerous free events and venues for educators who care about the future of STEM education. CIRTLCasts are free webinars organized into monthly thematic series and archived for later viewing. The theme for the eight webinars in January and February is highly applicable for science librarians – “Educational Innovation and the Active Classroom.” Sample webinars in this series are “Hybrid/Flipped Teaching with In-Class Design and Build Activities” and “Developing Active Learning Activities for Your STEM Course.” These webinars should get you thinking about how you can collaborate with STEM faculty and might improve your own instruction skills. CIRTL also hosts four online learning communities where you can participate in discussions and share resources. The Teaching as Research Community may be the ideal place to bounce your ideas for increasing retention off other educators and find collaborators for research.
My free account with CIRTL has just been activated, and now I have access to all the events, learning communities, my own blog platform, and more. I can’t wait to start exploring. Hope to run into some of you in the CIRTL Café!
Turret lathe operator machining parts for transport planes at the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation plant, Fort Worth, Texas, USA, 1942