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

Student Opportunities

Ideally, the team will include 9 undergraduates and 2 graduate students who feel comfortable leading math-centered discussions, especially as the program emphasizes understanding and pursuing multiple approaches for any given problem. The team will include students from a diverse set of majors and career interests, including math, STEM fields, education, psychology, and gender issues. All participants should be comfortable, professional and approachable around middle school girls.

Team members will develop their leadership skills by teaching math in a discussion-based format. Undergraduate participants will gain research, web design, communication, organization and personnel management skills. Outside of the workshops, students will discuss and plan activities that will build an increased awareness of gender stereotypes. These discussions will be guided by the project leaders and include invitations for team collaborators to share their expertise.

All team members will gain experience working in a school setting by interacting directly with workshop participants. Students will develop skills in project planning, public speaking and critical thinking as well as research skills in the context of program assessment and survey instrumentation. As the program incorporates discussion and study of a diverse range of topics, participants at all learner levels will gain a deeper understanding of an area that is new to them and learn about the complexity of the gender gap in STEM fields.

There is an optional summer component in Summer 2019; students will work for 20 hours per week over a period of 4 weeks.

The team will meet on Thursdays from 3:05-4:20 p.m. in Fall 2019.


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


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

See earlier related team, Problem-based Learning to Improve Girls’ Math Identity (2018-2019).


Image: Young participants and Duke students extract DNA from fruit during the FEMMES (Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering and Science) capstone event, by Jared Lazarus/Duke University

Young participants and Duke students extract DNA from fruit during FEMMES event.

/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
  • Christina L. Williams, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience
  • Ara Wilson, Arts & Sciences

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Durham Public Schools