Archive for the 'Recruit, Retain!' category

Rethinking the Normality of Attrition

There are few things so beloved by the professoriate as the faculty retreat – amirite? And the highlight of every faculty retreat is surely that hour when we gather and form small groups to contemplate How Diversity Is Making Us Stronger!!1!! These are nearly always well-planned, adroitly led, and very effective. In my dreams.

At one such gathering, the first exercise our group was given consisted of a sheet of paper with four photos: a young white man in casual clothing; a middle-aged white woman in a suit; a young African-American woman in a suit; and an old, bespectacled, gray-haired, bearded eminence in tweed jacket and tie. Our task: which of these people did we think was a professor, and why? Nobody wanted to go anywhere near that booby-trap. Nobody, that is, except the old, bespectacled, gray-haired eminence in a jacket in our group. He promptly pointed to the bearded dude and said “oh, he’s the professor. He just looks like one. Don’t you think that’s how a professor is supposed to look?” The diversity workshop leader happened to be standing next to our group at the moment and the rest of us cringed. Now, this professor was a really nice guy, and he said this without any guile. In retrospect I applaud him for saying what we were all thinking but self-censoring ourselves from saying. Gray-haired bearded dude did look like what we thought a professor should look like. The question was why did we, committed as we were to diversity, still think that? How could we come to see the others – especially the women – as equally valid images of the professoriate?  And what did all this mean for our work at the university?

Well, it should be no surprise, and should not make anyone feel guilty or ashamed, to realize that we carry these internalized stereotypical images of what a professor or scientist or engineer looks like. We daily bathe in the sea of stereotypes.  We may also carry a picture in our heads of what a successful STEM student looks like, without realizing it, and may make advising decisions based on that image rather than on the student’s interests, desires, and real potential.

The first step in interrupting the circuit is to interrogate the term “successful student”. Is a successful student one who makes top grades? One who rallies after a failure? One who doesn’t have a lot of distractions to get in the way of focusing on the degree? One who learns how to manage the non-negotiable constraints of life and still continue with their studies? One who goes on to a satisfying and successful STEM career post-graduation? One who takes their STEM degree as a springboard into another career direction? Is a successful student one whom we help to succeed?

Of course, I can tell you my anecdata about getting a D in calculus and going on to a successful STEM career despite a frosh advisor who suggested I switch out of engineering, and you can counter with your scores of advisees and your, as we will see, oh-so-unfortunate example of George.  And then I’ll walk over to my bookshelf and peruse the research.

The classic reference text on students switching out of STEM majors is, of course, Seymour and Hewitt’s Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave The Sciences. If you are a STEM professor, make yourself familiar with this book if you are not so already.  The book is an exhaustive presentation of the results of a three-year study of 335 students at seven four-year institutions of different type and location. The authors question the assumption that leaving, or switching, is natural or normal.

The revolution did not swing by anytime in the last 15 years so you can pretty much go with what the book says. Here’s the

most important single generalization arising from [the] analysis…switchers and non-switchers [were not] two different kinds of people. That is to say, [they did not] differ by individual attributes of performance, attitude, or behavior, to any degree sufficient to explain why one group left , and the other group stayed…What distinguished the survivors from those who left was the development of particular attitudes or coping strategies – both legitimate and illegitimate. Serendipity also played a part in persistence, often in the form of intervention by faculty at a critical point in the student’s academic or personal life. [emphasis mine] [p. 30]

It turns out that STEM is bleeding students, male and female, white students and students of color. Only, the bleed rates for females and students of color are slightly higher than for white males, so the overall impact of culling the herd is to reduce diversity. After all that hard work to recruit the best and brightest to your uni, and to get all those women and students of color to your doorstep! Such a shame. Well, what can you do, eh?

Seymour & Hewitt note, by the way, that inappropriate choice, underpreparedness, and overconfidence, while present for many students of color, are not sufficient factors to explain the higher switching rate of this group compared to white students. So one thing you can’t do is lay the burden for the problem on the students.  The extra difficulties that students of color face include: differences in ethnic cultural values and socialization; internalization of stereotypes; ethnic isolation and perception of racism; and inadequate program support.  It’s true. Your unis are not doing a good job of supporting students of color.

Seymour & Hewitt speak in their conclusion of a desire to marginalize the issue of wastage of students, given the consequences of taking seriously the loss of 40 to 60 percent of a group of students with above average ability.

Switching is not defined as a problem when it is believed to be caused, on the one hand, by wrong choices, underpreparation, lack of sufficient interest, ability, or hard work, or on the other, by the discovery of a passion for another discipline. Either way, there is little that faculty feel they can, or should, do about people who leave for such reasons. The difficulty about our data is that they support neither type of explanation for switching. We find no support for the hypothesis that switchers and non-switchers can be sufficiently distinguished in terms of high school preparation, performance scores, or effort expended...Nor do switchers neatly divide into those who are pushed out (by inappropriate choice of major, lower ability, poorer preparation, lower levels of interest, or unwillingness to work), and those who are pulled out (because they discover a vocation elsewhere)...[W]e posit that problems which arise from the structure of the educational experience and the culture of the discipline (as reflected in the attitudes and practices of S.M.E. faculty) make a much greater contribution to S.M.E. attrition than the individual inadequacies of students or the appeal of other majors. [p. 392]

Ouch. That hurts.

Students who wash up on your advising shores performing poorly in their major classes may be doing so for any number of reasons. In my opinion, if you let them get to their junior year and flunk a major course three times without an intervention, your uni is failing that student, and not by giving them a failing grade, if you follow me. Read the conclusions chapter of Seymour and Hewitt if you read no other part of it. There's more in there about the groups of students that are being lost from STEM, groups that faculty members might very much want to retain. And rethink your notions of the successful student and beneficial advice to switch majors. Even if you think you're doing the student a favor, is it really a good thing for your uni to continue recruiting, but not retaining, STEM students?

22 responses so far

Blame Jonah Lehrer for this SciCheer Screed

It’s no secret I am not a fan of SciCheer.  At the very best, it is eight blocks back from the beachfront, and I’m not even sure I’d grant it that.  But let’s face it:  women have been sold a pack of lies about their true worth.  They have been systematically taught to value themselves with the currency of society, and that currency is: the attention of men.  It just so happens that at this historical moment in the U.S. of A., SexxayHawt is what will get you a gazillionaire’s worth of attention, at least for a moment or two, until the next SexxayHawt-er comes along. Given this, it is unsurprising that some women would think whatever modicum of success they’ve had at the SexxayHawt Olympics should be used for good! not understanding that SexxayHawt is a sword which cannot be beaten into a plowshare. It’s like Project Orion’s long-ago dream of powering rockets into space with mini-nuclear bombs. Yay! except for that unfortunate nuclear fallout side effect.

Jonah Lehrer, in a post called The Scientific Gender Gap, describes the effects of stereotype threat in his convincing and compelling prose.  He ends with this bit about a

...2002 study led by the psychologist Paul Davies [in which] two groups of male and female undergrads were shown three minutes of television commercials. Students in the first group were shown a variety of “gender stereotyping” ads, such as a woman gleefully touting the benefits of a skin product, or a “slender female” talking about the deliciousness of diet soda. (All of the ads were real.) Students in the second group, in contrast, were shown a mix of gender-neutral ads, such as a pitch for an insurance company and a commercial about cell-phones. Then, the women were quizzed about their interest in pursuing a career in math or science. Once again, the results were depressingly clear: Women exposed to the gender stereotyping ads were far less interested in anything quantitative. Instead, they were more than twice as likely to choose careers in the verbal and service industry, such as retail, sales and communication. The pattern was reversed, however, in the women who saw neutral ads. They were actually more interested in pursuing quantitative careers. All it took was the absence of a blatant stereotype to increase their interest in math.

Well whaddya know.  I think cheerleaders fall under the blatant stereotype category.

Jonah thinks the cure is more female math teachers, but he didn’t say anything about their dress. The study by Davies doesn’t examine the situation of women exposed to gender-stereotyped-women promoting careers in science. But really - dressing women up as gender stereotypes and sending them out to tell young girls to pursue STEM careers – this will help those young girls overcome stereotype threat about STEM careers?  I mean, REALLY?  The mere presence of the cheerleader trope is more likely to evoke stereotype threat than to overcome it.

We already know, from the voluminous research literature on K-12 outreach programs that young girls like to hear stories about what scientists and engineers do outside of work.  Involvement in cheerleading may be one activity that helps to make a scientist seem more like a regular person to a young girl. But young girls also need to see the scientists and engineers doing or performing some aspect of their career – something they can aspire to.  Every message they already get everywhere they turn in society asks them to be, tells them they need to be, SexxayHawt when they grow up.  STEM recruitment that says you can be SexxayHawt! and do some science, too does a disservice to young girls, and in the end is neither revolutionary nor even particularly fresh.

STEM recruitment should send the message that STEM careers are a place where mind matters. If STEM outreach programs are talking about physical appearance at all, then it should be positive body image messages about accepting ourselves just the way we are, rejecting the culture of SexxayHawt, and not finding our value in how others look at us.

9 responses so far

Reinventing the Outreach Program Wheel

Why, oh why do I have to be hatin' on the good works that SciCheer wants to do for the young girls of our nation?

Reader of the blog theshortearedowl suggests

This campaign is like IT Barbie – it normalises STEM as within the range of things that “girls do”, for the (let’s be honest) majority of girls who haven’t yet heard that it’s ok to do things that girls “don’t do”. Maybe it’s good to take this opportunity to lay out the reasons why cheerleading is symptomatic of everything that’s wrong in gender relations; but as for the campaign itself – there’s room for more than one approach?

And bsci says

I just can’t figure out what this group of people using their voices to encourage people to stick with science is a bad thing.

Darlene of SciCheer says

These women spent most of their time talking to people about science and chatting to young girls and boys about careers in science and engineering (and why it’s important to understand math and science).
The response has been overwhelmingly positive (particularly from moms). You certainly don’t have to agree with the approach.

I certainly don't, and I'll tell you why.  Continue Reading »

31 responses so far

What's So Great About Your STEMmy Lifestyle Anyway? Inquiring Minds Want To Know!

Why should any woman get any degree in a STEM discipline? Especially if she has to wade through tons of bullshit courses to get there, and part of the learning, it appears, has to do with learning how to be someone you aren't? Some other gender, some other race - or some other social class?
skeptifem challenges the female STEM universe thus:

Continue Reading »

54 responses so far

Underrepresented Groups, Online Science Media, and ScienceOnline2010

Over at A Blog Around the Clock there are a series of posts with great video interviews from ScienceOnline2010, but I'd like to especially point your attention to this one with David Kroll and Damond Nollan, both of North Carolina Central University. It was filmed shortly after their session on "Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Session: Engaging underrepresented groups in online science media".
I missed this session due to a combination of sleep deprivation and headache, and am really regretting it. Isis has a good post based on her attendance at the session, however - you should read it.
You can also follow the Twitter conversation about the session with the combined tags #scio10 #mlk.
Dr. Free-Ride has posted a collection of her tweets from the session here. And a fine job she did, too.

Comments are off for this post

Latino Scholars in Higher Ed: Musings On Listening to Marketplace Report

This evening Marketplace Report had a segment on " A push for Latinos to pursue education". It's a great segment, based on a report from the Southern Education Foundation. (Possibly this one; four page summary of the report, A New Diverse Majority: Students of Color in the South's Public Schools is here.)

The Hispanic College Fund started out funding college scholarships, but found that wasn't sufficient; now they are reaching out to the high school level, as early as ninth grade, to encourage young Latino kids to pursue a college education. Many of these kids are from low-income families with parents who do not know how to navigate the college application and financial aid application processes.
This especially caught my attention: an early marketing strategy was to pitch the kids on how getting a college degree would vastly increase their earning potential. But this didn't have much impact. Apparently the kids listened to that pitch, looked at their parents working their asses off at two or more jobs to make ends meet, and experienced the "college will let you make more money" pitch almost as an insult to their parents' lives - as if the college recruitment crew were saying "strive for more and better because your parents aren't good enough." So they changed the pitch to "college will enable you to give back to and improve your community" and that met with greater success.
This is very interesting to me in several regards.

Continue Reading »

28 responses so far

Designing Faculty Websites - Diversity Resource

Professor in Training is working on a faculty website design and asks the following:

I'm in the process of designing my own page and also a separate set of pages for my lab. I know the type of stuff I want in both of these but I was looking for feedback from both current and prospective students and postdocs as well as other faculty as to what you look for if/when you go searching for faculty/lab pages.

Take a visit over there and share your opinion on what makes a good website. Inquiring minds may also be interested in some work done on this issue a few years ago by Cynthia Burack (and me):
Evaluating STEM Department Websites for Diversity
and by Burack, Ruth Dyer, myself, and Beth Montelone:
Designing Welcoming and Inclusive STEM Department Websites
You can also look up each of those papers in the WEPAN archives (click on the 2006 archives and scroll down the table of contents).

4 responses so far

How Do Blogs Help Recruit Women and Minorities in the Geosciences?

UPDATE: Pat Campbell has asked that if you did take the survey initially when it was returning 404 errors, and you subsequently re-took it, drop her an email and she will send you cookies! She has promised to send cookies to the first 10 of my readers who had to retake the survey, if you let her know by email. I've had her cookies. They are great! If you got the 404 error this is a nice incentive to retake - just do so and then drop Pat an email :
campbell AT campbell-kibler DOT com
UPDATE: If you took this survey right after I first posted this entry and got a 404 error when you tried to submit your answers, we are very very very sorry but your survey data was not captured. The error has been fixed now and we would be ever so grateful if you would please consider retaking the survey for us! Thank you so much, and sorry once again for the error!
Over the past several years, the geoscience blogosphere has blossomed so much that this fall, the Geological Society of America (GSA) will be convening a Pardee Keynote Symposium called "Google Earth to Geoblogs: Digital Innovations in the Geosciences." Kim Hannula of All Of My Faults Are Stress Related started wondering how blogs serve women geoscientists. Kim recruited the rest of us and we decided to approach this problem as scientists - by collecting data and analyzing the results. Specifically, we'd like to know how blogs might help in the recruitment and retention of women and minorities. We plan to discuss our results at the GSA session on "Techniques and Tools for Effective Recruitment, Retention and Promotion of Women and Minorities in the Geosciences." We have designed a survey, gone through the Institutional Review Board process (completely foreign to the geologists in our group), and now we need help from you.
We are asking you to complete a short (5- 10 mins), anonyomous, survey. The survey focuses on your participation with science blogs, why you read science blogs and what you gain from reading science blogs. It will also ask you to list blogs you find to be particularly useful and a little about yourself. No questions are required, all are optional.
We are primarily interested in the responses of women and minority geoscientists, but non-minority men, please feel free to fill out the survey as well. Your answers will be a useful point of comparison. Note also that we are definining geosciences rather broadly. If you are or can be a member of GSA, AGU, AAG, AMS, ASLO, their international counterparts, or similar organizations, please consider taking the survey.
All the data collected are anonymous and no individuals can or will be identified. Your participation in this study is completely voluntary. You are free to withdraw at any time without having any negative affect. If you have questions concerning the study, please contact Dr. Anne Jefferson at ajefferson (at) uncc (dot) edu.
To start the survey, just click here.
UPDATE: some commenters say the link above is not working; the url is
Anne Jefferson
Kim Hannula
Pat Campbell
Suzanne Franks

6 responses so far

Links for 4-3-2009

Scads of stuff I don't have time to blog adequately...

  • Johns Hopkins Provost Kristina Johnson was nominated by President Obama to be under secretary of the Department of Energy in mid-March. From the email press release:

    She is a distinguished researcher, best known for pioneering work -- with widespread scientific and commercial application -- in the field of "smart pixel arrays." Last year, she was awarded the John Fritz Medal, widely considered the highest award in engineering and previously given to Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, George Westinghouse and Orville Wright. She is an entrepreneur and has served with distinction as dean of engineering at Duke and, since 2007, as provost at Johns Hopkins.

    I should have blogged that for the last Diversity in Science carnival!

  • Isis smacks down the whiny jerkwads always complaining about "illegals" stealing "our jobs". You know, the ones the whiny jerkwads don't want to do.
  • Bean-mom left this very meaty comment three days ago on the motherhood/science careers issue,and it got lost in moderation. Check it out. Also check out her blog!

More stuff after the jump.

Continue Reading »

5 responses so far

Help Dr. Isis raise money for a scholarship - go visit!

Text and title shamelessly stolen from Sciencewomen, I have no time to write, am at mom's again.

Dr. Isis has decided to donate the funds from her blog traffic to fund a scholarship for undergraduate research, and has gotten the American Physiological Society to match her donation up to $500. And all you have to do is click on her site - no $$ donations required. So cool!
Go visit her announcement, and her site through teh browser not the RSS feed reader for this month. 🙂

One response so far

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