NSF grant will fund study of how girls develop interest in STEM

Finding ways to interest girls in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics has challenged educators and policymakers. A project led by an Indiana University School of Education researcher will look for answers in the relationship between girls and their mentors.

The three-year project, called Role Models in Engineering Education, is funded by $1.2 million from the National Science Foundation. It is a collaboration with the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach at Tufts University. The principal investigator at IU is Adam Maltese, associate professor of science education.

The project builds on research that Maltese published recently in AERA Open, an open-access journal of the American Educational Research Association. The study examined how girls and boys develop and maintain interest in STEM topics in elementary and secondary school and in college.

It found that women who pursued STEM education and careers were likely to attribute their interest to the influence of a third party, often a teacher or mentor. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to say they developed an interest in STEM on their own via intrinsic interest and motivation.

"I think the important thing is to get away from the notion that one strategy will work to get all students interested in STEM," Maltese said. "If we recognize that differences exist in how people get interested, and embrace that diversity when we work to increase interest, I think we'll see better outcomes."

The AERA Open study was co-authored by Christina Cooper, assistant professor of biology at Corban University, who holds a Ph.D. in science education from IU. It also found that men were more likely to report developing an initial interest in STEM as a result of "tinkering" or building things. Women were more likely to say they became interested as a result of play and outdoor activities.

"It comes down to memory and reporting," Maltese said, "but men are more likely to reflect inward and report that interest was generated independently, whereas women are more likely to indicate that others played a role."

The study was based on a survey of nearly 8,000 people, including college students, faculty and staff and professionals solicited through a variety of channels.

Researchers also examined what caused some people to persist in STEM fields while others lost interest or became more interested in other subjects. At the college level, women are more likely than men to switch majors and enter or leave STEM as their interests and priorities change.

Discussion of why people do or don't persist in STEM often focuses on the rigor of the curriculum and whether they are adequately prepared, Maltese said. But the study found that a major reason men and women chose and persisted in STEM fields was their interest in and passion for the subjects.

The three-year IU-Tufts project will seek a clearer understanding of how undergraduates act as role models and whether they trigger STEM interest in girls. Researchers will study a Tufts outreach program in which elementary students participate in an outreach program run by college engineering students. The study will increase understanding of how girls select and identify with role models and how these relationships might promote interest in engineering careers.

Getting more girls interested in engineering, researchers say, will improve educational and economic equity for women and increase the number trained engineers of engineers, likely benefiting U.S. technological development.