Research on Equity in Science, Engineering, and Technology (RESET)

Drawing on U.S. and other national data as well as three interrelated evaluation studies on materials science and engineering in an Historically Black College/University (HBCU) setting, this initiative focuses on how ability beliefs, active learning, mentoring and research opportunities, and supportive social contexts influence persistence toward STEM research careers, with a focus on broadening participation in science, engineering, and technology in higher education and postsecondary careers. This project builds on past and ongoing research on STEM equity and opportunity. These studies draw on national cohort data and original data collected using ESM methodology at two research universities, with possibilities for expansion and collaboration, as well as building capacity among graduate students.

Gender research strand. This project examines gendered, racial-ethnic, socioeconomic, and school-level differences in the changing landscape of post-secondary STEM education among U.S. youth. Specifically, we investigate the effects of engagement, school resources, and opportunity structures on female and male college students’ persistence in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields (STEM), with a particular focus on those fields with the strongest patterns of sex segregation. We use the most recent NCES longitudinal surveys of youth that presently follow students through post-secondary matriculation, employing advanced regression and quasi-experimental techniques to estimate these pathways towards and away from scientific degrees. We found distinct patterns between Physical, Engineering, Mathematical, and Computer (PEMC) Sciences as compared to other STEM fields. In multiple papers, those mathematically strongest girls early in high school often select Biological, Health, and Social and Behavioral Sciences in college, instead of PEMC. Subjective, social psychological perceptions in high school — seemingly exacerbated in advanced course taking — partially explain differing pathways.

Representative publications

Perez-Felkner, L., Thomas, K., Nix, S., Hopkins, J., & D’Sa, M. (2018, online first). “Are 2-Year Colleges the Key? Institutional Variation and the Gender Gap in Undergraduate STEM Degrees.” Journal of Higher Education. doi: 10.1080/00221546.2018.1486641

Studies of gender gaps in STEM higher education rarely consider two-year colleges,
despite the fact that most enrollees are women. Situated in an interdisciplinary
literature on gender and inequality in students’ pathways to STEM higher education,
this manuscript uses Beginning Postsecondary Students: 2004/09 nationally
representative panel data on 5,210 undergraduates. The primary research question
posed is: how does initial college type influence the gender gap in STEM undergraduate degrees? First, we describe and illustrate distinct patterns in the degrees earned by men and women who initially enroll in two-year and four-year institutions. Leveraging rich control measures, we then estimate a series of multivariate logistic regressions to robustly estimate gender gaps in non-STEM, social/behavioral sciences, life sciences, and natural/engineering sciences degree fields. Results on these degree clusters are distinct, underscoring the limitations of “STEM” as an umbrella category. College type is more influential on life sciences and social/behavioral sciences; effects on natural/engineering sciences degrees are experienced primarily by men, especially among baccalaureate degree earners. Gender gaps in life and natural/engineering bachelor’s degree earners are wider among initial-two year students (favoring women and men, respectively). The
discussion contextualizes and offers implications from our findings.

Perez-Felkner, L., & Gaston Gayles, J. (Eds.). (under contract). Advancing Higher Education Research on Undergraduate Women in STEM. 160 pages. New Directions for Institutional Research. Contracted final submission date: August, 2018.

This volume has three primary aims: (1) to raise awareness of the importance of considering field-specificity in research on undergraduate women in STEM fields; (2) to examine the experiences of STEM women across institutional contexts; and (3) to encourage stronger interdisciplinary theory and nuanced methodology in this body of research. In doing so, we aim to promote a deeper understanding among the scholarly, practitioner and policy communities about the complexity of inquiry around women in STEM.

Perez-Felkner, L. (contract). Conceptualizing the field: Higher education research on STEM gender gaps. Manuscript under contract for publication, New Directions for Institutional Research.

In volume edited by Perez-Felkner and Gayles: Advancing Higher Education Research on Undergraduate Women in STEM.

Saras, E., & Perez-Felkner, L. (contract). Next steps for higher education research on women in undergraduate science: The institutional context. Manuscript under contract for publication, New Directions for Institutional Research.

In volume edited by Perez-Felkner and Gayles: Advancing Higher Education Research on Undergraduate Women in STEM.

Nix, S., Perez-Felkner, L., & Thomas, K. (2018). Perceived mathematical ability under challenge: A longitudinal perspective on sex segregation among STEM degree fields. In S. Ceci, W. M. Williams, & S. Khan (Eds.), The underrepresentation of women in science: International and cross-disciplinary evidence and debate (pp. 133-151). Lausanne, Switzerland: Frontiers Media. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/research-topics/2794/underrepresentation-of-women-in-science-international-and-cross-disciplinary-evidence-and-debate

Reprinted. Originally published as an original research article with the same title in 2015.

Milesi, C., Perez-Felkner, L., Brown, K, & Schneider, B. (2017). Engagement, Persistence, and Gender in Computer Science: Results of a Smartphone ESM Study. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00602 Supplemental information available here.

While the underrepresentation of women in the fast-growing STEM field of computer science (CS) has been much studied, no consensus exists on the key factors influencing this widening gender gap. Possible suspects include gender differences in aptitude, interest, and academic environment. Our study contributes to this literature by applying student engagement research to study the experiences of college students studying CS, to assess the degree to which differences in men and women’s engagement may help account for gender inequity in the field. Specifically, we use the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) to evaluate in real-time the engagement of college students during varied activities and environments. Over the course of a full week in fall semester and a full week in spring semester, 165 students majoring in CS at two Research I universities were “beeped” several times a day via a smartphone app prompting them to fill out a short questionnaire including open-ended and scaled items. These responses were paired with administrative and over two years of transcript data provided by their institutions. We used mean comparisons and logistic regression analysis to compare enrollment and persistence patterns among CS men and women. Results suggest that despite the obstacles associated with women’s underrepresentation in computer science, women are more likely to continue taking computer science courses when they felt challenged and skilled in their initial computer science classes. We discuss implications for further research.

Perez-Felkner, L., Nix, S., & Thomas, K. (2017). Gendered Pathways: How Mathematics Ability Beliefs Shape Course and Degree Choices from High School through College. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00386 Supplemental information available here. See associated press

Do mathematics ability beliefs explain gender gaps in the physical science, engineering, mathematics, and computer science fields (PEMC) and other science fields? We leverage U.S. longitudinal, nationally representative data to estimate gendered differences in girls’ and boys’ perceptions of mathematics ability with the most difficult or challenging material. Our analyses examine the potentially interacting effects of gender and these ability beliefs on students’ pathways to scientific careers. Specifically, we study how beliefs about ability with challenging mathematics influence girls’ and boys’ choices to pursue PEMC degrees, evaluating educational milestones over a six year period: advanced science course completion in secondary school and postsecondary major retention and selection. In doing so, we review our recently published findings and present additional findings further demonstrating gender differences in secondary school mathematics ability beliefs in relation to objective ability measures and the consequences of these beliefs for students’ chosen degree fields.

Schneider, B., Milesi, C., Perez-Felkner, L., Brown, K., & Gutin, I. (2015). Does the gender gap in STEM majors vary by field and institutional selectivity? Teachers College Record. See also summary poster and full-text.

This research brief examines the gender gap in specific STEM majors among college sophomores and whether this gap varies across institutions of different selectivity. Using national longitudinal data, results show that women’s underrepresentation on STEM is solely driven by the field of physics, mathematics, engineering, and computer science (PEMC) and that the gender gap in this particular STEM field is ubiquitous across institutions of different selectivity levels. Men are three to four times more likely to major in PEMC even when comparing males and females scoring at the top of the SATs, who have a positive orientation toward math, and are enrolled at highly selective institutions.

Nix, S., Perez-Felkner, L. C., & Thomas, K. (2015). Perceived mathematical ability under challenge: A longitudinal perspective on sex segregation among STEM degree fields. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. See Appendix Supplement and related press.

In this manuscript, we investigate how perceived ability under challenge—in particular in mathematics domains—influences entry into the most sex-segregated and mathematics-intensive undergraduate degrees: physics, engineering, mathematics, and computer science (PEMC). Using nationally representative Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS) data, we estimate the influence of perceived ability under challenging conditions on advanced high school science course taking, selection of an intended STEM major, and specific major type 2 years after high school. Demonstrating the importance of specificity when discussing how gender influences STEM career pathways, the intersecting effects of gender and perceived ability under mathematics challenge were distinct for each scientific major category. Perceived ability under challenge in secondary school varied by gender, and was highly predictive of selecting PEMC and health sciences majors. Notably, women’s 12th grade perceptions of their ability under mathematics challenge increased their probability of selecting PEMC majors over and above biology. In addition, gender moderated the effect of growth mindset on students’ selection of health science majors. Perceptions of ability under challenge in general and verbal domains also influenced retention in and declaration of certain STEM majors. The implications of these results are discussed, with particular attention to access to advanced scientific coursework in high school and interventions aimed at enhancing young women’s perceptions of their ability, in particular in response to the potentially inhibiting influence of stereotype threat on their pathways to scientific degrees.

Perez-Felkner, L. (2015). Achievement Differences and Gender. In R. Gunstone (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Science Education. (pp. 9-10): Springer Netherlands. doi: 10.1007/978-94-007-2150-0_349. Full-text available here.

This brief discusses hypotheses and accompanying empirical debate around gender differences in science achievement.

Perez-Felkner, L. (2015). Attitude Differences and Gender. In R. Gunstone (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Science Education (pp. 93-94): Springer Netherlands. doi: 10.1007/978-94-007-2150-0_351 Full-text available here.

This brief discusses hypotheses and accompanying empirical debate about how attitudes about science and gender contribute to gender differences in science education and careers.

Perez-Felkner, L., McDonald, S.-K., & Schneider, B. L. (2014). What happens to high-achieving females after high school? Gender and persistence on the postsecondary STEM pipeline. In I. Schoon & J. S. Eccles (Eds.), Gender differences in aspirations and attainment: A life course perspective (pp. 285-320). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Full-text here.

Although progress has been made in reducing gender inequality in postsecondary education, in the U.S. and in other countries, gender gaps remain in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields judged so critical to economic competitiveness. Using the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002, we examine the secondary school experiences of young women and men and the impact of these experiences on their subsequent courses of study in college. In particular, we use this large-scale study to examine the effect of the psychological indicators (such as deep interest or absorption in the subject matter) suggested to be important predictors of persistence in small-scale studies of women specializing in STEM fields at the postsecondary level. Focusing the analysis on high-achieving youth who have completed the secondary school STEM pipeline course sequences, we find that academic preparation in secondary school is the critically important consideration in keeping American males on the STEM pipeline midway through their undergraduate postsecondary educational experience. African American males who have completed these sequences are the most likely to declare STEM majors and Latino males are least likely, net of nativity status. For high-achieving females on the whole however, coursetaking is insufficient to keep them on the STEM pipeline. Their orientation towards mathematics and external supports from engaged family, school staff, and friends are powerful predictors of their persistence in STEM at the postsecondary level.

Perez-Felkner, L. C., Nix, S., Hopkins, J., & Thomas, K. (presented 2014). Is the Gender Gap in STEM Culturally-Specific? Choosing Scientific and Other Career Fields in Cambodia. Paper presented at American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, AERA, Philadelphia, PA.

Little is understood regarding the ambitions of Cambodia’s people, the majority of which are young and often at least partially enrolled in university. In the throes of rapid development, Cambodia is gambling on an investment in higher education. This paper reports on analyses of primary and secondary data on Cambodian universities. Interestingly, focus group interviews and fieldwork show regional and class variation in attitudes among students and their parents about the appropriateness of girls going into engineering, computer/information technology, and accounting. This may be because of the compounding effects of decades of communism and NGO involvement in emphasizing gender equality on an otherwise traditional culture. This study has implications for investments to keep women in the scientific pipeline.

Perez-Felkner, L., McDonald, S.-K., Schneider, B., & Grogan, E. (2012). Female and Male Adolescents’ Subjective Orientations to Mathematics and Their Influence on Postsecondary Majors. Developmental Psychology, 48(6), 1658–1673. See also APA link.

Although important strides toward gender parity have been made in several scientific fields, women remain underrepresented in the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, and computer sciences (PEMCs). This study examines the effects of adolescents’ subjective orientations, course taking, and academic performance on the likelihood of majoring in PEMC in college. Results indicate that racial-ethnic and gender underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields are interrelated and should be examined with attention to the intersecting factors influencing female and racial-ethnic minority adolescents’ pathways toward careers in these fields. Among those who major in PEMC fields, women closely resemble men with respect to their subjective orientations. The effects of subjective orientations on women’s chances of majoring in PEMC vary by their secondary school mathematics course completion levels. Women who take more mathematics courses are more likely to major in PEMC; however, course taking alone does not attenuate gender disparities in declaring these majors. High mathematics ability (as measured by standardized test scores in the 10th grade) appears to be positively associated with women’s selection of social, behavioral, clinical, and health science majors. This association is less robust (and slightly negative) for women in PEMC. While advanced course taking appears to assist women in selecting PEMC majors, women who enter these fields may not be as strong as those who select other, less male-dominated scientific fields.