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Do women majoring in STEM disciplines in countries other than the United States encounter the same challenges to persistence that we’ve identified in our universities? A June 2014 article in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education by Garcia Villa and Gonzalez y Gonzalez suggests they do. The authors of “Women Students in Engineering in Mexico: Exploring Responses to Gender Difference” report that the female students they interviewed encounter male engineering faculty and students who stereotype them as being weak and less capable in math and science. The interviewees also find that male college students in general assume women in science are unfeminine and unattractive.

These descriptions of the STEM educational experience for Mexican women sound remarkably like those given by American interviewees in the study, Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences, by Seymour and Hewitt. While it’s unfortunate that stereotyping of women in STEM is seemingly widespread, we should consider that we have other countries to look to for advice and collaboration. I’ll be searching for and sharing examples of successful international programs that support young women in STEM majors by challenging persistent stereotypes of females.

Image attribution: “A medical student working at the laboratories of ITESM CCM during the PreHealth course,” by Hillary411K, 2013. CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

 

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A recently published PLoS One article on sexual harassment of trainees in scientific fieldwork is getting a lot of social media attention according to Altmetric. Clancy et al. report in “Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault” (DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0102172) that a majority of fieldwork participants have experienced sexual harassment, with women being 3.5 times more likely than men to report harassment in the survey (p.4). Even more disturbing is the result that 90% of the women reporting were students, postdocs or employees at the time, and the most likely perpetrator was a supervisor (p.4). Before anyone jumps to the conclusion that I’m picking on scientific disciplines that conduct fieldwork, the researchers state their results are “generally consistent with other studies of workplace harassment in other professional settings” (p.5). And, according to Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences by Elaine Seymour and Nancy Hewitt, the hostile environment extends to STEM labs and classrooms, but perhaps in a more subtle manner. In interviewing hundreds of students who stayed in or left STEM majors, the researchers heard frequent reports of female students being belittled, stereotyped, or alienated by male peers and faculty (Chapter 5: Issues of Gender). Maybe subsequent research will prove that sexual harassment does not have significant bearing on whether young women leave the STEM disciplines. However, since STEM education already has characteristics that discourage many women (competition, weed-out system, lack of relationships with faculty), then sexual harassment may become a factor that tips the balance in favor of leaving STEM. So when university administrators are looking for ways to improve STEM education, creating an accepting and safe environment for female students must be a component of a successful initiative.

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One more post on the ALA Annual Conference, and then I’ll move onto other topics. I was particularly struck by the insights of speaker Carissa Tomlinson at the panel session, “Sticking with STEM: How the Academic Library Can Help to Retain Successful Students,” co-sponsored by ACRL’s Science and Technology Section and Health Sciences Interest Group. Carissa is the First Year Experience Librarian at Towson University near Baltimore, Maryland. Carissa’s slide presentation, “Quick Ideas for Libraries to Help with Retention Efforts,” is a useful outline of the challenges to STEM retention and practical ways to for libraries to contribute. Her emphasis on collaborating with campus partners to assist STEM students in new ways confirms the conclusions I’ve been drawing from the STEM retention literature. Carissa is actually an academic advisor, in addition to a librarian. Not all librarians will have the time to fully step into an advising role, but collaborating with advising and career services to approach one-stop service for information is key to reducing student frustrations with bureaucratic challenges. Volunteering for retention efforts in her liaison department is another approach Carissa has taken. She serves on the advisory committee for the IDEA Center for ESL nursing students, which provides cultural orientation for nursing practice and mentoring. This is a reminder that many academic librarians can support retention through their faculty requirements to perform scholarship and service. Hopefully, the library profession will be hearing more from Carissa Tomlinson in the future on the impact of her innovations.  

Photo attribution: Las Vegas Poster USA Welcome Casino, taken by lacarabeis, 3/7/2010, license – Public Domain CC0.

 

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I hope many of you took time from gambling to attend the panel session, “Sticking with STEM: How the Academic Library Can Help to Retain Successful Students” at the ALA Annual Conference 2014 in Las Vegas. The program was co-sponsored by ACRL’s Science and Technology Section and Health Sciences Interest Group, and featured three speakers. The one administrator on the panel was the dedicated Dr. Joanna Jezierska (Dr. J) from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she directs the Multicultural Program for Engineering, Sciences, Allied Health Sciences, Community Health Sciences, and Nursing. Retention among the students participating in the program is at 80.1%! Dr. J’s clear message was STEM retention is a complex problem that requires a complex solution only possible through collaboration. Her long list of partners included faculty, deans, libraries, student organizations, academic advising, academic success services, financial aid, personal counseling, K-12 teachers, and potential STEM employers. You can read about some these collaborators on the program’s Services page. Dr. J encourages librarians to think beyond their usual duties and interact with students and collaborators in new ways to achieve the common goal of improved STEM retention. A summary of her talk will eventually be posted on the STS website. Photo attribution: Wesley Fryer / CC BY 2.0

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Precious Hardy and Mara Aruguete at Lincoln University of Missouri have presented a promising assessment tool in “Needs Assessment in STEM Disciplines: Reliability, Validity and Factor Structure of the Student Support Needs Scale (SSNS),” published in a 2014 issue of Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. The scale assesses six areas of support from the student and institution: Knowledge, Performance, Motivation, Self-Efficacy, Tools/Environment, and Feedback. In tests of reliability and validity, the instrument demonstrates positive relationships between the SNSS score and both overall and major GPA. The authors are encouraging college and universities to administer the tool to STEM students, especially minority students, to pinpoint support weaknesses and guide spending of funds to improve retention of STEM undergraduates. I was hoping the academic libraries would be represented in the Tools/Environment section, but we are only vaguely there in the 19th statement to be answered with a Likert scale: “The university has many institutional processes that promote success in my major” (p. 557). Looks like we need to better market libraries as a major source of support for all students, as important as career advising, which is specifically mentioned in the instrument. I’ll keep researching for ways librarians can support STEM retention efforts, and posting them here for you to use as selling points.  Please share any marketing approaches you’ve used to put your library on the radar for retention support.  

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The Engage to Excel executive report issued by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in 2012 made five recommendations to produce one million STEM graduates by 2022. Recommendation 4 is “[e]ncourage partnerships among stakeholders to diversify pathways to STEM careers” (p.7) and related Action 4-4 is “[improve] data provided by the Department of Education and the Bureau of Labor Statistics to STEM students, parents, and the greater community on STEM disciplines and the labor market” (p.8). To this librarian’s ears, Action 4-4 sounds like a call to create greater access and promotion of STEM career information, allowing students and their parents to make better decisions about entering STEM disciplines.  At least one study (Talking about Leaving) suggests that many undergraduates enter STEM disciplines based on little or stereotypical career information, and leave STEM without accurate information about the career options they could have pursued. The Bureau of Labor Statistics continues to publish the Occupational Outlook Handbook, which is full of great information about the requirements, pay, and job outlook for occupations; however, even the online version is still text-based and could appeal more to young adults with some media elements. In my search for engaging information about biology careers, I have come across these interviews of STEM professionals that are worth sharing with undergraduates: Librarians can help students make informed decisions about entering or leaving STEM disciplines by discovering and sharing similar resources. We can also spread the word by collaborating with our colleagues in advising and career counseling to promote these resources. Photo attribution: “Science Careers in Search of Women, 2014,” Argonne National Laboratory,  CC BY-NC-SA 2.0  

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Amy Leask, guest blogger on Recruiting Women Technoblog, makes a convincing argument in “STEM, Girls and the Importance of Storytelling,” to engage young women in STEM by using storytelling. She’s not talking about storytelling around the campfire, but giving a social context to STEM facts and theories. She encourages educators to share with students the stories of the individuals who made significant discoveries in science and the social impact of science over history. Educators can also make science more engaging by facilitating discussions of current social issues involving science, and letting students explore science through role-playing, digital media, and science fiction. I have mentioned in this blog before the major 1997 study, Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences, by Elaine Seymour and Nancy M. Hewitt. After interviewing 460 STEM undergraduates at 7 colleges and universities, the researchers discovered the main factor in a student’s decision to switch out of a STEM major was “lack of/loss of interest in SME [science, mathematics, and engineering]: ‘turned off by science’” followed by “non-SME major offers better education/more interest” (p.33). In interviews, female and male students explained how dull the bare presentation of facts and problems was in their lecture courses. They wanted more of “the big picture” surrounding scientific knowledge, and many eventually switched to social sciences or humanities majors where they found educators who used social context in their pedagogy. Are there ways academic librarians could enable STEM faculty to do more storytelling?   Photo attribution:  Art at the library: “Once upon a Time,” by John K, 2009. The image has not been modified. Some rights are reserved by a Creative Commons license.      

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I encourage librarians who are researching undergraduate STEM retention or developing retention strategies to reach out and share your findings and experiences beyond the library profession. An obvious audience for the library science perspective is the education profession, which can be reached through a number of publications. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Journal of STEM Education: Innovations and Research , Journal of Science Education and Technology, and Science Education are rich sources for primary and secondary studies of STEM retention, and promising forums for sharing how librarians can collaborate with university faculty and staff to give STEM students the academic support they need. There are many other science education journals to investigate; see a partial list at The Sourcebook for Teaching Science, published by Norman Herr, Ph.D., at California State University – Northridge. Post your favorite here.   Photo attribution:  Bullseye!! taken by Asim Bharwani on January 24, 2009. No changes were made to this image. License – CC Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0  

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Last year, The Huffington Post started the HuffPost Girls in STEM Mentorship Program to match up more than 500 girls with mentors in science and engineering. The news publication has created the Girls in STEM webpage to chronicle the mentorship program and promote discussion on how to attract and keep girls in STEM. The webpage includes featured blog posts, Twitter feed and articles. An article that struck a chord with me is “This is what Inspires Girls in STEM,” which includes quotes from college-age women. Many of the young women quoted want to enter a STEM career for altruistic reasons or because they are fascinated by nature and/or technology. What happens to all that enthusiasm, causing female undergraduates to leave STEM in greater numbers than males? Contributing authors to HuffPost Girls in STEM have various answers to that question and their opinions are worth monitoring as librarians consider how to encourage more young women to stay in STEM majors. Photo attribution: Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day 2012, Argonne National Laboratory. No changes were made to this image.

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The theme of ACRL’s Science and Technology Section (STS) Theme Poster Session at the ALA Annual Conference in Las Vegas this summer is: How can librarians assist with student diversity and retention in the STEM and health science fields at their institutions?

 

The posters will be exhibited on Monday, June 30, 2014, from 10:30 to 11:30 am during the STS program reception. And don’t forget that the STS program at 8:30 am that day is also about STEM retention. I’ll be there with my poster – stop by and visit!

 

Image attribution: 2011 Summer Intern Poster Session, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, July 20, 2011. The image has not been changed.