To Shrink the Gender Gap in STEM, Start with Girls’ Math Identity

May 18, 2020

Santillan and team.
Team leaders (including Sophia Santillan, second from left) and undergraduate team members with middle school participants visiting Dr. Jiji Abdelgadir (a Duke neurosurgery resident) during a Summer 2019 workshop.

Many young girls love math and excel at it, but at a critical point in their development, stereotypes and cultural norms can dampen girls’ interest in math and other STEM subjects.

Sophia Santillan was able to maintain her own love of STEM and is now assistant professor of the practice in Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science. A three-time Duke alumna (Ph.D., M.S. and B.S.) and an experienced STEM teacher across levels, she is interested in the effect of emerging technology and research on student learning and classroom practice.

Since Fall 2018 she has collaborated with Victoria Akin (Math) and Lauren Valentino (Sociology) to lead a Bass Connections project team called Spatial Reasoning and Problem-based Learning to Improve Girls’ Math Identity.

“Math identity is the way that a student feels about math and the way they feel about themselves as mathematicians,” Santillan said. “Our research goals are to understand what middle school girls and female-identifying undergraduates think about their role in STEM and their own identity as STEM researchers and mathematicians.”

In the fall, the 2019-2020 Duke student team members learned about the causes of the gender gap in STEM, what the landscape looks like for women today, how to teach math and how to work with middle schoolers. This background prepared them for the spring, when the team invited middle school girls from Durham Public Schools to come to Duke’s campus and participate in weekend workshops.

GEM workshops.

“We do a lot of fun, hands-on math problems and have age-appropriate discussions about gender, especially as it relates to STEM,” Santillan explained. “What’s been surprising is how much engagement we’ve seen from the undergrads – how much they’re sharing their own experiences in the classroom, talking about what it’s been like to be women in STEM, but also finding the things we all have in common that led us to be in that room in the first place. It has been really interesting and rewarding.”

Read more from Sophia Santillan, check out the team’s year-end profile in the Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Virtual Showcase and view the team’s poster to learn about their research.

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