Problem-based Learning to Improve Girls' Math Identity (2018-2019)


Women continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields in the United States. The gender gap in STEM fields exists at all levels, from childhood through career selection, and there are many causes for female underrepresentation found in recent research on the topic. Two major causes are students’ math identity—their beliefs, attitudes and emotions about math—and societal views around gender as it relates to fields of study. Because many people see math as a “masculine” subject, women and girls tend to feel they must overachieve in the field to be competitive, or even comparable, with their male counterparts. Additionally, the pervasive stereotype that STEM fields are “for men” can have a negative impact even on those who actively reject the stereotype.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project aims to inspire students to change their own relationships with math both by building confidence, ownership and self-sufficiency in problem-solving and by building awareness of gender stereotypes and their potential impacts.

The project team will plan and run a series of free workshops for middle school students who identify as female in an attempt to improve their math identity. The resulting research will assess the impact of a problem-based discussion format with peers and undergraduate leaders on students’ confidence and engagement in math.

All workshops will be designed with an interactive, problem-based curriculum. The materials and activities will encourage the middle school students to solve rich but accessible problems using many different approaches.

The participating middle school students will not be selected based on academic achievement, and problems will be approachable to all students, with extensions that can challenge the more advanced students. Because there will be no lecture component to the workshop, students may think of the problems less as in-class work, and more as “puzzles,” where all skills that students bring from previous coursework are permissible for use, and students can work together and merge their skills to solve a given problem. The curriculum will also include developmentally appropriate discussions about gender stereotypes and their impact, especially as they relate to math performance. These discussions will build awareness among the students about implicit bias and stereotype threat.

Outside of the workshops, Duke team members will work together to plan activities, discuss their own ideas and approaches and build an increased awareness of gender stereotypes.

Workshops will occur on Saturdays during the academic year. A free daytime summer workshop will be run several times during the summer. Students will also have the opportunity to remain engaged with program by participating online. A regularly scheduled “puzzle” will be posted online, and students may submit their ideas, solutions and questions.

Assessment will occur through regular surveying of participants and parents, along with tracking program attendance. Participants will be surveyed regularly about their confidence and interest in math, along with their comfort level and participation in their math classroom at school. Participation in the online components of the program will also be tracked. Results of the first year of the program will be used for publication, but they will also be used to inform further research related to problem-based learning and the potential impact on girls’ confidence in the classroom.

Anticipated Outcomes

Increased confidence and interest in math by workshop participants

Student Opportunities

All students will interact directly with workshop participants and gain experience working in an education setting, which they can apply to other educational activities such as FEMMES, TIP or serving as a teaching assistant or tutor. Students will also develop leadership skills, including project planning, public speaking and critical thinking. Student participants will, by participating in the program and associated research, be included in associated publications.

Undergraduate student participants will meet weekly with team leaders (and contributors, when appropriate) during the fall semester to prepare for the next two semesters of the workshops. These meetings will be discussion-based, seminar-style sessions led by faculty and/or students, where all participants will discuss topics including teaching methods, gender stereotypes and child development.  Discussions will be guided by required reading, practice teaching sessions and role-playing exercises.  All participants will be asked to reflect regularly on their program training and relevant experience in other settings. Ongoing discussions and learning will occur during the following two semesters, as participants meet to discuss and gather feedback from preceding workshops.

A work-study student will manage administrative planning, including registration of middle school participants, transportation to workshops and purchases of additional materials.

The team will include 4-5 undergraduate students and 1-2 graduate students from a diverse set of majors and/or career interests, including math, STEM fields, education, psychology and gender issues. All participants should be comfortable leading math-centered discussions and working professionally with middle-school girls.

Students will be asked to invest in training meetings by engaging fully in discussions and leading some sessions. They will be assessed by their participation in these meetings, preparation for these meetings and work in developing materials for workshops. Students will be given feedback about their participation in workshops themselves, and they will be tasked with giving each other constructive feedback regularly.


Fall 2018 – Summer 2019

The team will meet on Thursdays, 3:05-4:20 p.m.

  • Fall 2018: Training (including research and discussion) for undergraduate team members; administrative planning of workshops, including advertising to area school students
  • Spring 2019: Saturday workshops
  • Summer 2019: Weekday workshops


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Victoria Akin, Arts & Sciences-Mathematics*
Martha Putallaz, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience
Sophia Santillan, Pratt School of Engineering-Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science*
Lauren Valentino, Trinity - Sociology-PHD*
Ara Wilson, Arts & Sciences

Graduate Team Members

Lauren Valentino, Sociology-PHD

Undergraduate Team Members

Cassandra Galeano, Sociology (AB)
Ashley Halleran, Mechanical Engineering (BSE)
Preethi Kannan
Shelby Powers, Mathematics (AB)
Selena Qian
Talise Redmond, Economics (BS)
Emily Wilson, Public Policy Studies (AB)
Pingyi Zhu, Economics (BS), Mathematics (AB2)

* denotes team leader


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