Improving Girls’ Math Identity through Problem-solving and Mentorship (2020-2021)


The gender gap in STEM fields exists at all levels, from childhood through career selection, and there are many different, but often related, causes for female underrepresentation. Two major causes of the gender gap are a significant disparity between men and women in their spatial reasoning skills and students’ math identity, represented by their beliefs, attitudes and emotions about math and STEM.

Spatial ability in students contributes both to their likelihood to choose STEM occupations and their actual development of skills in STEM-related coursework. Research shows that while men’s performance on spatial reasoning assessments is stronger than women’s, these skills are easily developed through training. This training has a lasting effect on spatial skills and positively affects performance on spatial tasks not explicitly addressed in training activities.

Project Description

This project aims to address two major causes of the gender gap in STEM by planning and running a series of free workshops for middle school girls, designed to improve their math identity. Team members will build a collection of hands-on projects to help girls develop spatial and geometric reasoning skills. They will use computer-aided drawing software and other drawing techniques to practice visualizing three-dimensional objects using two-dimensional methods. Other activities will include assessing the impact of the workshops on girls’ spatial reasoning skills, confidence and engagement in math and other STEM subjects and self-concept as women exploring math, investigating mathematical concepts in geometry such as the Euler characteristic and orientability and adapt materials to a middle school setting, where appropriate.

The curriculum will include age-appropriate discussions about gender stereotypes and their impact, particularly in math performance and spatial reasoning, to build an awareness about growth mindset and stereotype threat. All workshop activities will be led by female-identified undergraduate students, who, along with the project co-leaders, will serve as positive examples of women engaging in math. Workshops will be held on Saturdays during the academic school year, and a free daytime workshop will also run during the summer. Students will also have the opportunity to engage with the program by participating online.

Anticipated Outputs

Publication; training and assessment materials; series of free workshops for middle school girls; collection of hands-on projects on visualizing in multiple dimensions; data for future projects on problem-based learning


Fall 2020 – Summer 2021

  • Fall 2020: Complete undergraduate student training; begin administrative planning of workshops; advertise workshops to area school students; improve curriculum for middle-school girls; design website and social media outreach to connect with parents and students; design surveys
  • Spring 2021: Conduct workshops for middle-school girls; participate in student discussions to reflect on challenges, successes and improvements
  • Summer 2021: Conduct summer workshops for middle-school girls; collect and analyze data; write and submit papers with results from spring workshops

See related teams, Spatial Reasoning and Problem-based Learning to Improve Girls' Math Identity (2021-2022) and Spatial Reasoning and Problem-based Learning to Improve Girls' Math Identity (2019-2020).


Image: The Green Star team tries to untangle themselves during the Human Knot activity.

Human Knot.

Team Leaders

  • Victoria Akin, Arts & Sciences-Mathematics
  • Sophia Santillan, Pratt School of Engineering-Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science

/graduate Team Members

  • Aidan Combs, Sociology-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Samantha Dilley
  • Morgan Feist
  • Julia Helm
  • Sydney Hunt
  • Talya Jeter
  • Tess Lipsky, Electrical & Computer Egr(BSE), Computer Science (BSE2)
  • Naomi Rubin
  • Miryam Rudolph
  • Ann Sawers
  • Anna Song, Mechanical Engineering (BSE)
  • Caroline Tang
  • Michelle Yin, Mathematics (BS)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Sandra Bermond, Academic Services and Research Computing
  • Chip Bobbert II, Academic Services and Research Computing
  • Michael Faber, Innovation Co-Lab; OIT
  • Martha Putallaz, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience
  • Christina L. Williams, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Durham Public Schools
  • Leah Metcalf