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Stemming STEM gender gap has to start early, continue in classrooms

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Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014

By Angelie Meehan

PHOENIX -

SAMANTHA DAVIS/CRONKITE NEWS: Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are fields that are traditionally dominated by males, except in biology. But Cronkite News reporter Angelie Meehan explains how this gender gap still exists in the classroom.

ANGELIE MEEHAN/CRONKITE NEWS: As a biological science major and president of Women in STEM, ASU senior Rachel Olzer is science-savvy.

RACHEL OLZER/STUDENT: So, I went in thinking I was going to be pre-med and go to med school and become a doctor, and I got involved in research and sort of fell in love with it.

ANGELIE MEEHAN/CRONKITE NEWS: Female students fill up Professor Sara Brownell’s introductory biology course, but it’s what they’re not doing in class that’s concerning.

SARA BROWNELL/ASSISTANT PROFESSOR: In exam scores, so women are underperforming compared to men on tests, and then they’re also not participating as much in class.

ANGELIE MEEHAN/CRONKITE NEWS: Evidence of these findings can be found in the latest issue of the journal Cell Biology Education/Life Sciences Education. Olzer sees this firsthand in class.

RACHEL OLZER/STUDENT: A┬ámale is more likely to answer with confidence, like, “This is the answer and I know it’s the answer,” whereas I see a lot of my female colleagues, they’ll sort of answer the question as a question.

ANGELIE MEEHAN/CRONKITE NEWS: When does this gender inequity begin? Professor Brownell says as early as children are socialized into society, including the toy section.

SARA BROWNELL/ASSISTANT PROFESSOR: If you look at toys that boys get to play with versus toys that girls get to play with, the boys tend to get the engineering, the more puzzle-y toys, the more science-y toys.

ANGELIE MEEHAN/CRONKITE NEWS: Culturally enforced gender expectations could play a factor in why females choose not to pursue STEM fields. Olzer says the idea can be fostered into young girls’ heads.

RACHEL OLZER/STUDENT: One of the things I think that has stuck with me the most is this campaign to stop telling girls that they’re pretty, because pretty will only get you so far. So we need to start telling them that they’re smart.

ANGELIE MEEHAN/CRONKITE NEWS: Brownell and Olzer both agree bringing awareness to the gender difference in introductory college-level biology courses is the first step to solving the issue.

SAMANTHA DAVIS/CRONKITE NEWS: Professor Brownell says teachers are using a strategy called “random call.” Instructors use a randomized list of names when calling on students, and that helps to prevent bias.