Spatial Reasoning and Problem-based Learning to Improve Girls' Math Identity (2019-2020)


The gender gap in STEM fields exists at all levels, from childhood through career selection. A recent research study discovered that there are many different but often related causes for female underrepresentation in science. Two major causes are students’ math identity and their beliefs, attitudes and emotions about math, as well as a significant disparity between men and women in their spatial reasoning skills.

Spatial ability in students contributes both to their likelihood to choose STEM occupations and their actual development of the skills in STEM-related coursework. Research shows that while men’s performance on spatial reasoning assessments is stronger than women’s performance, 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.

This project aims to inspire girls to change their own relationships with math by building their confidence and self-sufficiency in problem-solving, improving their spatial reasoning skills and increasing overall awareness of gender stereotypes in math.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project aims to improve girls’ math identities by developing and implementing a series of free workshops for middle school students. The resulting research will assess the impact of the workshops on students' spatial reasoning skills, confidence and engagement in math.

Many workshop problems will focus specifically on spatial and geometric reasoning. Team members will build a collection of hands-on projects designed to help the girls visualize and analyze in multiple dimensions. Workshop materials and activities will encourage students to solve rich, accessible problems using many different approaches. Activities will be planned so that students can communicate their ideas about the problems and apply their existing skills in math and logic in new ways. Participating students will not be selected based on academic achievement, and problems will be approachable to all students, with extensions that can challenge advanced students.

The curriculum will include age-appropriate discussions about gender stereotypes and their impact, particularly in math performance and spatial reasoning. These discussions will build an awareness of growth mindset and stereotype threat. All workshop activities will be led by female undergraduate students, who, along with the project team leaders, will serve as positive examples of women engaging in math.

Workshops will take place on Saturdays during the academic school year, and a free daytime summer workshop will run during the summer.

Anticipated Outputs

Project website; workshops for girls in middle school; information for further research and publications


Summer 2019 – Summer 2020

  • Summer 2019 (Optional): Assess project outcomes from previous year and analyze them to improve workshops
  • Fall 2019: Begin training for undergraduate student participants; initiate administrative planning of workshops, including advertising to area school students; design website and social media outreach plan
  • Spring 2020: Host Saturday workshops and regular student discussions about challenges, successes and improvements of project
  • Summer 2020: Host summer workshops for students, begin data collection and analysis

Team Outputs to Date

Shrinking the Gender Gap in STEM (Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Virtual Showcase 2020)

Spatial Reasoning and Problem-based Learning to Improve Girls’ Math Identity (poster by Sophia Santillan, Tori Akin, Lauren Valentino, Aidan Combs, Becca Erenbaum, Pingyi Zhu, Preethi Kannan, Selena Qian, Michelle Yin, Vivian Chen, Ashley Rosen)


Faculty Perspectives: Sophia Santillan

Selena Qian

This Team in the News

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

See related teams, Improving Girls’ Math Identity through Problem-solving and Mentorship (2020-2021) and Problem-based Learning to Improve Girls’ Math Identity (2018-2019).

STEM girls.

Team Leaders

  • Victoria Akin, Arts & Sciences-Mathematics
  • Sophia Santillan, Pratt School of Engineering-Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science
  • Lauren Valentino, Kenan Institute for Ethics

/graduate Team Members

  • Aidan Combs, Sociology-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Vivian Chen, Neuroscience (BS)
  • Rebecca Erenbaum, Statistical Science (BS)
  • Preethi Kannan
  • Hannah Marchuk, Mathematics (BS)
  • Selena Qian, Interdepartmental Major
  • Ashley Rosen, Mechanical Engineering (BSE)
  • Michelle Yin, Mathematics (BS)
  • Pingyi Zhu, Economics (BS), Mathematics (AB2)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Martha Putallaz, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience
  • Christina L. Williams, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience
  • Ara Wilson, Arts & Sciences-Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Durham Public Schools