Shrinking the Gender Gap in STEM

Project Team

Team leaders and members with middle school participants.
Team leaders and undergraduate team members with middle school participants visiting Dr. Jiji Abdelgadir (a Duke neurosurgery resident) during a Summer 2019 workshop.

Team profile by Vivian Chen, Aidan Combs, Rebecca Erenbaum, Preethi Kannan, Hannah Marchuk, Selena Qian, Ashley Rosen, Michelle Yin and Pingyi Zhu

Women are underrepresented in the STEM workforce, particularly in math and computational fields. This underrepresentation begins early – not because girls do not perform as well as boys at math but because, at a critical point in their development, stereotypes and cultural norms can dampen many girls’ interest in math and STEM subjects. Factors affecting this trend include a lack of female STEM role models, field-specific beliefs, mindsets, and values, and small gender differences in spatial reasoning.

GEM.Our project team created Girls Exploring Math (GEM), an innovative program designed to address the gender gap in math. Duke undergraduate and graduate STEM majors lead weekend workshops for Durham Public School (DPS) middle school girls. GEM workshops are unique in that they combine mathematics problem-solving with interactive discussions of the socioemotional factors that affect persistence in STEM.

Undergraduate and graduate student team members prepare for their role as workshop mentors in our Fall course. They develop their leadership skills by teaching math in a discussion-based format while leading these workshops. Team members have gained research, web design, communication, organization, and personnel management skills. In anticipation of the workshops, the team discusses and plans activities that build an increased awareness of gender stereotypes. These discussions are guided by the project co-leaders and include discussions led by team collaborators.

Math activities included (L to R) the river crossing puzzle, mobius strips, and cryptography.
Math activities included (L to R) the river crossing puzzle, mobius strips, and cryptography.

Each workshop includes both a hands-on math puzzle and a gender-and-STEM discussion activity. Our team employs a social identity approach to build and nurture STEM-compatible beliefs alongside a rich problem-based mathematics curriculum with a focus on spatial reasoning. Summer workshops in 2019 included laboratory and clinical visits with female STEM practitioners at Duke to provide exposure to female role models.

Our key research questions are:

1. Does this interdisciplinary workshop curriculum positively impact participants’

  • Social identity: Beliefs about neuroplasticity and gender as related to STEM learning and achievement? STEM-compatible social identity?
  • Self-efficacy: Confidence in their math abilities?
  • Cognitive abilities: Mathematical reasoning? Math performance in the classroom? Spatial reasoning?

2. What, if any, are the associated attributions of the gender gap in STEM by adolescent girls? What impact does a social identity based curriculum, together with a mathematical problem-based learning approach, have on these beliefs?

3. Does the impact of the overall curriculum persist across cohorts as the program is expanded? Do social identify, self-efficacy, and cognitive outcomes differ between cohorts?

To evaluate these research questions, we built an IRB-approved survey instrument and administered both a pre-test and a post-test to workshop participants. Survey questions target their attitudes and beliefs about math and social identity. The survey also includes a math assessment.

During our 2018-2019 GEM program, a total of 17 girls completed both the pre-test and the post-test. We compiled survey data and began preliminary analysis. In our early data, the middle school participants showed improved performance on the mathematics assessment. Students were given three math problems requiring critical thinking and reasoning. These were each scored on a scale from 0 to 3.

We found that students’ performance on math tests improved between the beginning and end of our program.

Participants also demonstrated an increased belief that innate sex difference do not cause the gender gap in STEM. We also saw movement on measures of confidence. As part of the survey, the girls rated how confident they felt about their answers to four math problems. We saw an increase in both overall math performance and average confidence. However, confidence was not correlated with correctness (students were sometimes confident on problems that they answered incorrectly, but lacked confidence on problems they completed successfully). In survey responses, we also saw an increase in growth mindset attitudes. However, we documented a consistent use of “fixed mindset” language throughout the workshops.

When we asked the GEM participants about the most important thing they learned throughout the year, they told us: “My gender shouldn't hold me back from being in a STEM job,” “Be confident in what you love to do,” and “That being a girl is important and so is what we do.”

Conference participants.
We presented our findings from 2018-2019 to STEM educators and practitioners at North Carolina’s Bridging the Gap 2019 conference in October 2019.

In the first series of workshops, we saw participation taper toward the end of the program. In the Spring 2020 workshops, we targeted consistent attendance by using multiple platforms to communicate with parents. We increased the number and frequency of workshops to maintain rapport with the middle school girls. There was a noticeable improvement in attendance as a result.

Based on the content that they study during our Fall semester course, the workshop mentors are responsible for planning math activities and gender discussions for middle school workshops. For 2019-2020 we worked on encouraging the undergraduates to feel a sense of ownership of the materials used by the middle school girls. We updated the Fall semester course to include specific strategies for writing compelling activities and facilitating problem-based learning. Our Fall curriculum included both a midterm exam and a final exam in which undergraduate pairs presented mock workshops. We also implemented weekly “kudos” to highlight our mentors’ efforts and to encourage them to keep up the good work!

Additional Information and Resources
GEM website
Duke GEM YouTube channel
GEM on Instagram
Student story by Selena Qian (’22 Interdepartmental Major, Team Member 2018-19, 2019-20)
Bridging the Gap

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 and Ashley Rosen