Changing the face of STEM education

Balancing the scales in science, technology, engineering and math

Engineering Science Quest (ESQ) is one of many Waterloo outreach programs that seek to keep young students engaged in science, engineering and mathematics. This summer, ESQ brought interactive, educational fun to families at the Pan Am Games in Toronto. Photo credit: Joel Mieske, Faculty of Engineering

Fourth-year computer science student Julia Nguyen got hooked on technology early. In elementary school, she tinkered with website design. But it was learning to write her own programs at a computer science workshop for Grade 8 girls that set her on her current career path.

“That workshop made me realize I wanted to code for the rest of my life,” she says.

Her passion puts Nguyen in a minority. As Waterloo’s undergraduate statistics reveal, men significantly outnumber women in most so-called STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering and math.

In 2014-15, women made up fewer than 19 per cent of students in Waterloo’s physics program. They accounted for 15.6 per cent of computer science students. And the figures were even more dismal in some of engineering’s biggest programs: just under 14 per cent in electrical, 11.6 per cent in mechanical and 12.3 per cent in mechatronics.

“We have some work to do to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities to succeed,” acknowledges Mahejabeen Ebrahim, Waterloo’s director of equity. It’s an issue of justice and fairness, she says, but also pragmatism.

Women bring different experiences and perspectives to the table. According to research, that diversity creates innovation — the kind of innovation required to develop better products, create new breakthroughs and tackle the big, complex problems facing our world.

"We have some work to do to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities to succeed."

MAHEJABEEN EBRAHIM, director of equity

Getting there isn’t simply a matter of paying lip service to equity. Rooting out the systemic bias that is entrenched in thinking, culture and in organizations requires intentional, sustained effort, Ebrahim says.

This is a rights-based issue, but that doesn’t mean part of the population stands to lose ground so another group can gain. Instead, she says, creating a supportive and inclusive culture ultimately benefits everyone.

“We simply cannot afford to leave behind the talents of half the population,” Ebrahim says.

"Math class is tough"

So what’s stopping more women from studying computer science, electrical engineering, theoretical physics and a host of other male-dominated fields? The research paints a complicated picture. Although boys continue to score higher on international assessments of math performance, girls consistently bring home higher grades in all subjects throughout elementary school and high school.

Meanwhile, by the time girls start making careerdefining choices, they have been exposed to a slew of subtle and not-so-subtle cultural messages and stereotypes — everything from the infamous Talking Barbie dolls that told girls “Math class is tough” to the shortage of female role models in STEM. Not surprisingly, many believe that engineering is all about cars and that computer programmers are Star Trek geeks or devote their weekends to non-stop hackathons.

Then there’s the self-esteem issue that prevents many girls from pursuing “difficult” subjects like math and physics.

“Often they lack a confidence in themselves,” says Laura Sanità, assistant professor of combinatorics and optimization in the Faculty of Mathematics.

According to Jo Atlee, Waterloo’s inaugural director of women in computer science, girls may face barriers but they don’t lack aptitude. In the mid-1980s, women made up 35 to 40 per cent of undergraduate computer science classes. Atlee attributes those numbers to the fact that back then, before every household had a personal computer — and boys monopolized them — the playing field was far more level.

“It showed that there isn’t an inherent difference in either men’s or women’s interest or ability in computer science,” she says. “History shows that the percentage of female students in computer science should be at least 35 to 40 per cent without any intervention. And then it would be interesting to see how efforts to improve equity could achieve higher percentages.”

Investing in outreach

Waterloo’s Faculty of Engineering has made a concerted effort to attract women, including through offering girls-only programs and co-ed camps.

According to Mary Wells, engineering’s associate dean of outreach, the key is engaging girls before they set their mental models of what boys do, what girls do and what engineering is all about. “Even by Grades 5 and 6, girls really start to turn off from science and engineering,” she says.

Girls clubs for elementary and middle school students have proved hugely popular.

“They sell out within an hour,” Wells says. “I couldn’t even get my own daughter in.” High school students can take advantage of Go Eng Girl and Go Code Girl, while the Catalyst Women’s Conference brings Grade 11 girls to campus for a weekend to immerse them in the world of engineering, connect them with like-minded peers and fire them up with confidence.

Altogether, Waterloo Engineering outreach programs attracted nearly 18,000 youth in 2014. And those efforts are paying off. In September, Wells welcomed hundreds of young women to a Women in Engineering barbecue as the Faculty celebrated the highest percentage of females ever in an incoming class: 28 per cent.

Other Faculties are reaching out with programs of their own, such as Let’s Talk Math, Let’s Talk Science, CS Girls Rock and Programming Challenge for Girls, to name a few.

But attracting young women is just half of the equation. The other half is ensuring they succeed in their chosen discipline.

Young women taking a selfie

From left to right: RIA RUNJIE JIANG, LUXSUMI JEEVANANTHAN, SRISHTI GUPTA, JULIA NGUYEN (centre), RASHEEDA YEHUZA, KASSIANE WESTELL, EVY KASSIRER, members of the BigCSters computer science group at Waterloo.

Setting women up for success

When Nguyen applied to computer science at Waterloo, choosing a male-dominated program didn’t worry her. “I thought it was kind of empowering,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh yes, I’m one girl with all these guys kicking ass.’ ”

As time went by, however, being the only woman in a group of guys put a dent in her self-esteem. “They didn’t treat me as an equal,” she says. “I felt like whenever they would have technical conversations, they would kind of dumb it down for me, or they assumed I wouldn’t know what they were talking about.”

Despite earning an entrance scholarship, she struggled with some of her first-year courses. She started feeling insecure about her technical abilities, but as one of just a few women in her program, she didn’t want to show weakness.

Christine Logel, a professor of social development studies, knows the story well. When most students make the transition to university, they struggle at times with loneliness, homesickness and difficulty navigating a new institution. They may feel uncomfortable asking questions in class, they get lower grades than they did in high school, and they worry about how to handle a crushing workload. “That’s totally normal,” says the social psychology researcher, “and it is temporary. In time, most students adjust to their surroundings and learn how to succeed.”

Now, take all those challenges, and on top of them, imagine knowing that some people out there believe that only men are good at math and engineering. And when you walk into a lecture hall, you see few faces that look like yours. Together with the challenges of starting a competitive program, it would be easy to wonder whether you belong.

So when some young women in STEM disciplines hit some of those speed bumps — a failing grade on their first midterm, for example — it can seem like proof that the program isn’t for them. “This concern is not just in their heads. It does take time to find the other women in their classes, to connect with mentors, and to make friends with people of the opposite sex, and in the meantime, it really does feel like you don’t belong. School is already stressful. And since stress can have an impact on grades, any additional stress can make it harder for a student to do as well as she is truly capable of doing.”

But as Logel and her colleagues have shown, a onehour exercise can be enough to change that picture dramatically. Logel exposed STEM student volunteers to paragraphs written by male and female upper-year students describing how they struggled in first year, how they learned that those struggles were normal, and how things got better with time. Participants then wrote brief essays to help them process those messages.

The simple intervention gave women the small nudge that was all they needed to draw on the abilities and resilience they already had — the kind of small nudge that men in a male-dominated program already get in the course of their day. Compared to control students, women exposed to the one-hour exercise came to feel that they did belong, felt that the challenges they faced each day were not such a big deal, and made more male friends in their classes. The result was that these women’s grades went up by an average of 10 percentage points, erasing a gender gap among the students in the study, and leaving women’s grades slightly higher than the men’s.

“The women accepted into Waterloo’s STEM programs are extraordinarily capable. They already have everything it takes to succeed. And I have seen first hand how much the faculty and staff respect their abilities and care about their success. Once in a while it can help to have a reminder that everyone faces challenges, and that men share their concerns that they may not belong. They are not alone.”

Eliminating isolation

Initiatives to help women feel less isolated can also make a big impact. In Nguyen’s case, getting involved in Waterloo’s Women in Computer Science committee and its BigCSters mentorship program helped her connect with other women and build support networks. “It’s just a really great place to open up and feel like you can show who you really are and be vulnerable and get help from people,” she says.

Fourth-year chemical physics student Alison Jennings found similar benefits when she joined FemPhys, a student-run club that holds mentoring nights, hosts guest speakers and discusses issues including the leaky pipeline for women in STEM, intersectionality, scientific method, femme identities in STEM fields, and mental health.

Jennings had run into exclusionary language and stereotyping in her male-dominated physics classes, but she tried to play it down. “That isn’t a hurtful comment,” she would tell herself. “I’m just over-reacting.”

Connecting with FemPhys made her realize she wasn’t over-reacting — and she wasn’t alone. “Having people who can understand that and empathize with you makes a world of difference,” she says.

In STEM programs across campus, similar female-focused clubs and committees are doing everything from hosting social events to organizing self-defence courses to reaching out to women who have received admission offers, making contact before they even set foot on campus.

Rethinking STEM education

Meanwhile, different Faculties are rethinking what they teach, how they teach it and who delivers the lectures.

In engineering and science, newer undergraduate programs that link STEM to health care and the environment are attracting women in droves. Half of environmental engineering students are female, as are 54 per cent of life physics students and 55 per cent of biomedical engineering students

Computer science has instituted female-only hours in the computer lab, and Atlee plans to scrutinize the curriculum for any gender bias in assignments.

STEM departments have also been working hard to attract more female faculty, providing all-important role models. “The more diverse your faculty is, the more likely students are to find someone they identify with,” says Melanie Campbell, a professor of physics and astronomy. “There’s lots of literature indicating that that’s important to attraction and retention.”

In 2015, Campbell was honoured with a Status of Women Award of Distinction from the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Association, for her leadership in improving the position of academic women.

Across the campus, the University has a role to play not just in providing support, but also in identifying and removing systemic barriers to promote a culture of inclusion, says Ebrahim, director of equity.

Creating a campus-wide culture of inclusion

Initiatives within each Faculty are complemented by a campus-wide commitment to gender equality. Not long after President Feridun Hamdullahpur took the helm at Waterloo, he appointed Ebrahim as a full-time director of equity. He also appointed Diana Parry as a special advisor to the president on women’s and gender issues.

The two are fostering efforts to proactively promote equity through programs, policies and practices in order to address biases, remove systemic barriers and create a supportive environment in which female students, staff and faculty can thrive. Those efforts run the gamut from a comprehensive review of hiring policies to a fridge rental program for breastfeeding moms. And they include engaging men.

“We need to work together,” Parry explains. “Gender equity is not a women’s issue. It’s everybody’s issue.”

Patrick Diep agrees. An interest in social justice prompted the third-year biochemistry student to join Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (WiSTEM), an undergraduate club dedicated to promoting gender equity in STEM disciplines.

Diana Parry

Diana Parry (Photo credit: One for the Wall)


"Gender equity is not a women’s issue. It’s everybody’s issue."

DIANA PARRY, Special advisor to the president on women’s and gender issues, associate professor of recreation and leisure studies.

“Males do have a role in the feminist movement,” he says. As 2015 co-president of WiSTEM with Halina Li, he wants to build a more supportive community for women in STEM and inform more men about the issues. “By tackling the most dominant gender issues — women’s rights — both males and females benefit in important ways,” he says.

That’s the kind of thinking driving HeForShe, the UN Women’s global campaign to engage men in advancing gender equity. Earlier this year, the University of Waterloo joined the campaign’s IMPACT 10x10x10 framework that brings together 10 heads of state, 10 chief executive officers and 10 university presidents — the only Canadian organization or institution invited to participate.

On May 5, 2015, more than 200 men and women gathered in the atrium of Math 3 to mark the official launch. Male students, staff and faculty held placards declaring themselves to be #HeForShe, while President Hamdullahpur unveiled the University’s commitment to boost the number of women in three key areas.

Over the next five years, Waterloo will increase the number of female faculty to 30 per cent, women in positions that lead the University to 29 per cent and female participation in STEM outreach programs to 33 per cent. According to Hamdullahpur, those ambitious targets aren’t just achievable, they’re essential.

“University is about unleashing potential, including the potential of women in every discipline,” he says. “That’s why I’m proud that Waterloo is taking the lead for Canada’s university sector in the global HeForShe effort.”

The campaign creates an opportunity to deepen the dialogue on gender issues, learn from others and shine a light on what more needs to be done. Each dean at Waterloo will appoint a HeForShe champion to spearhead action within their Faculty.

Meanwhile, the University has created six new STEM-focused scholarships to be awarded annually for the next five years, and plans for a 2016 conference on women in STEM are underway.

A beacon of change

All those initiatives have Parry fired up with excitement.

“I feel like the climate is really ripe for Waterloo to tackle these issues. It really sets us up to be a galvanizing force for social change across Canada.”

HALINA LI and PATRICK DIEP, co-presidents of WiSTEM

HALINA LI and PATRICK DIEP are the co-presidents of Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (WiSTEM), an undergraduate club that promotes gender equity. (Photo credit: One for the Wall)

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