Can a Simple Email Encourage Women to Stay in a STEM Program?

Women occupy just 28% of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs and account for only 17% of computer science majors and 21% of engineering majors.

A group of researchers from Kent State University and North Carolina State University want to know what can be done to broaden participation in STEM fields and improve the persistence of women in computer science. Based on existing social-psychology theory and the results of their 2018 pilot study, they suspect that the differences in career choices arise partially from gender differences in self-assessment of STEM ability while in school.

Susan R. Fisk, Department of Sociology
Led by Assistant Professor of Sociology Susan R. Fisk, Ph.D., in Kent State’s College of Arts and Sciences, the researchers have received $300,000 in grant funding ($125,062 directly to Kent State) from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to test whether educational institutions can use a simple, easily-to-implement intervention, such as an encouraging email message, to increase the persistence of women in computer science and other STEM disciplines.

Their two-year grant project, titled “Analysis of a Simple, Low-Cost Intervention's Impact on Retention of Women in Computer Science,” is funded by the NSF Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: Education and Human Resources program.

Fisk, serving as a principal investigator (PI), will collaborate with several faculty members from the Department of Computer Science at North Carolina State University, including Teaching Assistant Professor Bita Akram, Ph.D. (also a PI), and co-PIs Professor Tiffany Barnes, Ph.D., Assistant Professor Thomason Price, Ph.D. and Teaching Associate Professor Tzvetelina Battestilli, Ph.D.

To test their hypothesis on improving persistence, they will use a “lightweight” self-assessment intervention in introductory computer science courses, emailing students contextual information about their performance designed to improve their self-assessed ability. They will explicitly tell the student that they are “a top performer in the class and that they should consider getting involved in undergraduate computer science research.” 

Their project includes testing the self-assessment on a larger scale using:

  • Field experiments in introductory computer science courses with approximately 2,800 students at North Carolina State (including both majors and non-majors) to determine the effect of the self-assessment intervention on self-assessments of ability, persistence intentions, enrollments in follow-up computer science courses and involvement in undergraduate research.

  • 60 qualitative interviews with students in the targeted introductory courses to understand the mechanisms by which the intervention succeeded, or reasons it failed.

  • Online experiments at Kent State with 280 novice programmers to determine what kind of feedback is most potent at increasing self-assessments of ability.

Their 2018 pilot study, with 193 students in an introductory computer science course and conducted by Fisk, Kathryn Stolee, Ph.D. (an associate professor of computer science at North Carolina State), and Battestilli showed that the intervention significantly increased all students' self-assessed computer science ability and it also increased women's persistence intentions. It also found that changing the wording of a single email increased women's computer science persistence intentions by 18%.

The researchers are also hoping that this research will further knowledge about how self-assessed ability impacts the persistence of other underrepresented and marginalized groups in STEM.

To learn more about Fisk’s research, visit www.SusanFisk.com.

To learn more about the Department of Sociology at Kent State, visit www.kent.edu/sociology.

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Media Contacts:
Susan Fisk, 330-672-2709, sfisk@kent.edu
Jim Maxwell, 330-672-8028, jmaxwel2@kent.edu

POSTED: Friday, August 21, 2020 - 10:57am
UPDATED: Thursday, September 3, 2020 - 2:22pm
WRITTEN BY:
Jim Maxwell