According to a new study, students exclude themselves or enter STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines, based on stereotypical views of what makes a typical student.
New research from the University of Reading has found a social hierarchy in STEM, as well as narrow but differing views on the ideal or typical student in each discipline. These opinions are shared by STEM students and are informed by broader societal opinions.
The results, which are published today in International Studies in the Sociology of Education, may explain why women, people of color, and students with disabilities are underrepresented in certain STEM subjects. To change that, attitudes must change, say the researchers.
Students think biology is easy and physics is hard. How students talk about STEM subjects, themselves and their fellow students, reveals the influence of patriarchy, white supremacy, classism and ableism on who can study and excel in biology, engineering, math or physical.
Dr Billy Wong, Associate Professor at the Institute of Education, University of Reading, said: “Diversity in STEM is key to ensuring that research is designed to meet the needs and challenges faced by all. members of our communities.
“After making small gains in the number of women and minorities in STEM, over the past decades, we still see huge disparities in most STEM subjects, with the exception of biology and life sciences. life.
“Listening to students talk about STEM subjects actually revealed a lot about barriers to entry into non-biological sciences, math, and engineering.”
Dr. Wong and his team surveyed 89 students from two research-intensive universities who all study one (or more) of four subjects: biology, physics, mathematics and engineering. They asked participants what was the ideal student for their subject and the other three subjects, compared to the typical student.
Engineering, math, and physics students were described using masculine-associated language, such as “analytical,” “intelligent,” and “resilient.” Biology, on the other hand, is seen as a place of “collaboration”, “work-life balance” and “passion”.
Biology, where women are represented equally with men, is seen as the easiest STEM subject of the four.
Susie, a white British engineering student, was interviewed for the research. She said a lot of engineering students, especially women, “don’t know how good they are.” She said: “They think if they don’t get top marks… they’re not worth it because nobody says to them, ‘hey, that’s perfectly fine’, because… there’s a lot of pay attention to that first [class grade] to be the being and the end of everything.”
Francesca, a study participant and a black British woman, who is studying physics, said: “You have to be passionate about physics because physics is hard. So if you don’t like it as much as you say that you love it, you’re probably going to be tearing your hair out and giving up within six months of graduation… you have to have… insane resilience… you’re going to rewrite this code 20 times, re-do this problem 20 times. ” She also said physicists are normally “either white or male.”
Heather, a British East Asian woman interviewed for the research, said the ideal biology student “asks questions if [they] don’t understand anything”, as well as give “110% in their courses [and] does extra reading in his spare time.
Odessa, a white British participant, said the typical biology student is “willing to work hard” and work “with other people…on collaborative projects”, at least in part because their “department puts a lot focus on [wanting] Change of idea [that] scientists are people who literally work alone in a laboratory”. She said that “science is about collaboration” and that “people who fail in biology are not able to communicate”.
Dr Wong said: “It’s unclear which came first, the view of biology as an easy subject, or the more equal representation of women in the biological sciences. We think it’s likely that women choose the non-biological sciences on their own because they view them in masculine terms.
“This social hierarchy will also impact students with family responsibilities or paid work, as well as students with disabilities. Members of these groups may feel that tackling a ‘difficult’ subject would require ways of being totally incompatible with the demands of their lives.
“We need to make STEM subjects more inclusive and accessible to everyone and changing the image of who studies in each discipline would make a significant difference.”
Dr. Wong and his team believe that interventions to address these issues need to take place both in secondary school and in higher and higher education. These could include efforts by higher education staff and the wider STEM community to challenge the hierarchy, through better mutual recognition of the values that different branches of STEM contribute. This would be greatly facilitated by opportunities for interdisciplinary work, say the researchers.
Interventions at an earlier stage of education, perhaps at key stage 3, or GCSE science education could focus on broadening the perceptions and popular view of those studying STEM subjects. Dr. Wong suggests teaching that STEM is not just for those who seem to reflect certain stereotypes. In fact, the ideal STEM student is supposed to be quite diverse and this is something students need to know from the start.
How gender norms influence what young people choose to study in school
Billy Wong et al, “Biology is Easy, Physics is Hard”: Student Perceptions of the Ideal and the Typical Student in STEM Higher Education, International Studies in the Sociology of Education (2022). DOI: 10.1080/09620214.2022.2122532
Provided by the University of Reading
Quote: Widening STEM participation requires a change in attitude (2022, September 26) Retrieved September 26, 2022, from https://phys.org/news/2022-09-widening-stem-requires-attitude.html
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