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Campus Women Lead

Summer 2005

Volume 34
Number 4

Elusive Equality for Women in Science and Technology

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Women in Science Reach for the Stars at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
By Katherine A. Friedrich and Judith N. Burstyn, Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Katherine A. Friedrich Judith N. Burstyn
Katherine A. Friedrich
Judith N. Burstyn

Elizabeth Waters Hall has housed college students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since the 1940s. Past its traditional stone walls and white-walled entrance, tucked away in the west wing of the building, is a floor of dorm rooms whose doors are decorated with golden moons and stars and wavy patterns of blue. A bulletin board advertises support and leadership opportunities for women in the sciences. Rock music drifts down the hall through an open door.

The students who live on this floor are enrolled in the Women in Science & Engineering (WISE) program, a residential learning community. According to a recent study, their average first semester grades are higher than those of a comparable cohort of women entering the university. They are more likely to declare a science or engineering major by the end of their second year. And they are more likely to graduate on time, with a major in science or engineering.

The Center or the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning
Across campus, in the brick tower of the Educational Sciences Building, Judith Burstyn, Professor of Chemistry and Pharmacology, is working on an ambitious set of resources designed to change the culture of science teaching. These resources include a book of teaching techniques, a collection of case studies on diversity in science, and a literature review. The project is a part of the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL), an NSF Center for Learning and Teaching whose mission is to prepare the future science, engineering and math faculty for careers combining research with excellent teaching.

"Many very capable students leave the sciences because they don't like what they perceive as the culture. That seems to disproportionately turn away women and minority students," Burstyn says. Through sharing research on inclusive teaching with science graduate students and faculty, CIRTL hopes to make classrooms more welcoming of diversity.

Opening Doors to Success for Women in Science
The WISE program aims to "get students excited about science and to integrate science into their lives," says Evelyn Howell, Faculty Co-Director of WISE and Chairperson of the department of Landscape Architecture. Howell wants to reduce the sense of intimidation that female students sometimes experience by making the connections between science and everyday life.

"Science is a life's work," Howell says. However, she recognizes that college students need time to explore professional opportunities before they choose their majors. The goal of the program is to "nurture a lifelong appreciation for science and engineering," not to steer students prematurely into the science "pipeline." "Even if they end up going to law school, their interest . . . is there," says Ann Haase-Kehl, Program Coordinator of WISE.

The program combats isolation from the moment that students arrive on campus. "Sometimes they come in thinking they're all on their own," says Haase-Kehl. "The women in engineering tend to be the most isolated. They're quickly spread out into very specific classes." To minimize isolation, Haase-Kehl organizes discussion groups for engineering students and underrepresented minority students.

Last year, a female vice president of a local engineering firm came to speak about life in the working world to WISE students. The students appreciated that the speaker gave a balanced presentation. She described both the advantages and the disadvantages of being female in engineering.

As part of its emphasis on networking, WISE encourages students to invite their instructors to "professor dinners." Jean Bahr, former Faculty Co-Director of the program and Chairperson of the Geology department, recalls proudly that one student invited the director of the geology museum to dinner. The conversation led to a student finding a job at the museum and eventually declaring a major in the field.

In a seminar this fall, WISE students will talk with professors who specialize in controversial fields such as climate change, the human brain, health care access, and wetland restoration in Iraq. Howell says that the goal of the seminar is to "model lifelong learning, . . . debate, . . . and have fun."

Developing Positive Social Networks
Besides creating professional opportunities for students, WISE provides a natural space for students to support one another academically. The program even has designated sections within some courses.

"WISE kept me steered towards the sciences," says Anita Boor, who will be a WISE housefellow this year. "The more I'm in it, the more proud of it I am. Just seeing women in science—it's inspiring." She recently declared her major—biology—after being inspired by a course in the Biocore department. The course, she says, taught her "how to think about science."

Even though WISE is science-oriented, the program also includes a wide array of arts and social activities. "Part of what we're trying to show . . . is that they don't need to be one-dimensional," explains Bahr. Recently, students went on an unconventional backstage tour of the well-known American Players Theatre. "They showed us the mechanics," Boor says. Students have also attended science-related plays. Boor says she knows many students who are double majoring in science and the humanities.

If there were one way she could improve the program, Boor says, it would be to start a WISE alumni group for students who have moved off campus. "WISE is very successful with its freshman and sophomore members." However, the statistics show that, even if students are moving on, the program seems to have a lasting positive influence.

Resources to Improve Science Teaching
"I've always been committed to getting more women to enter . . . the hard sciences," Burstyn says. A former Faculty Co-Director of WISE, Burstyn became involved with CIRTL several years ago. She has been working with an interdisciplinary group of students and faculty to develop user-friendly educational materials about inclusive teaching.

At the May CIRTL Forum, Addressing the Student Learning Experience: Achieving Diversity in STEM Disciplines, resources were distributed to the 284 attendees. The resources had been created in response to requests from professors and gaps in the literature about science teaching. CIRTL staff are currently marketing the products through faculty networks, organizations that prepare future faculty, and national media.

Professor Alberto Cabrera of the School of Education, along with CIRTL staff, developed an extensive literature review in response to requests from science faculty who wanted to know about "pipeline" issues—the sources of underrepresentation—as well as effective inclusive practices. It currently contains over 100 article summaries with concise recommendations for faculty and administrators, and is available online and in EndNote format.

CIRTL's casebook, Case Studies in Inclusive Teaching in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, is "a great conversation starter," says CIRTL Diversity Team Co-Leader Sherrill Sellers, Professor of Social Work. "We don't say there's only one right answer. These issues are very complex." The scenarios are intended to foster group discussion of the challenges that professors and students face relating to many issues, including disability, nationality, learning style, and sexual orientation.

Sellers was inspired to produce the case book after taking an interactive certification test. She thought of producing case scenarios on diversity that people could use over the Internet. This phase of the project is still in progress.

Addressing Diversity in the Sciences
As a guide for professors who are interested in developing multidisciplinary inclusive courses, CIRTL is currently assembling a collection of diversity-oriented syllabi. The project is a joint venture with the Science and Technology Taskforce of the National Women's Studies Association and is being organized by Psychology professor Mary Wyer of North Carolina State University. The guidebook Reaching All Students: A Resource for Teaching in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics addresses the shortage of teaching assistant and new faculty training manuals that address diversity in the sciences.

Manuals for TAs weren't particularly fun to read," says Sellers. As a teaching assistant, she read a standard manual and thought, "It doesn't help me!" Her concerns, as a graduate student of color, were different from those that the book addressed. Although there are some excellent books on science teaching available, Sellers found none that infused diversity-related topics into each chapter. Having just one chapter on diversity can mask the fact that inclusive teaching affects every aspect of a course.

For example, Sellers notes that diversity is rarely addressed in the context of grading and evaluation. "The academy has taught us to address [evaluation], but not for the right reasons," says Sellers. "We have these tools that turn into popularity contests. That is distressing."

Reaching All Students also addresses communication. Using teaching techniques that work for students of different backgrounds and who have learning styles can enhance the learning of everyone in a class. This concept is known within CIRTL as "learning-through-diversity."

"Most faculty, I believe, go into a classroom assuming everyone is just the same as they are," Burstyn says. When faced with students whose experiences and learning styles are different than their own, she says, faculty may think the students are "incapable."

Cultivating Effective Teaching Strategies
Burstyn says that new science instructors are knowledgeable about content, but don't know how to create a welcoming environment for students in large introductory classes. "Many students complain [that] professors appear to be arrogant," she says. Beginning instructors often feel "besieged by the students," Burstyn explains, and they tend to withdraw. "It's much easier to put up a wall between yourself and the students," she says.

Although male students also find introductory science courses intimidating, Burstyn says, female students are likely to be further discouraged by instructors' omission of the societal benefits of science. When new science instructors begin teaching, they don't usually know how to develop a course structure, write student-friendly exams, or set learning objectives. Through participating in the faculty development program, "Creating a Collaborative Learning Environment," Burstyn learned how to design courses to achieve specific results. This program is now offered to the University of Wisconsin—Madison campus community through CIRTL's Delta Program in Research, Teaching and Learning—the title of which means "change" in math equations.

Delta brings students and faculty together to learn effective teaching strategies. Last January, Chris Carlson-Dakes, Associate Director of Delta, led a retreat to "get people to . . . step back and think about [inclusive teaching] in a relaxed environment." Since learning about diversity in engineering education, Carlson-Dakes says, he has become "much more conscientious of student dynamics." This coming winter intersession, Delta will offer a series of workshops for science faculty and graduate students using the CIRTL diversity resources.

"It's hard to imagine preparing future faculty without preparing them for diversity," says Astronomy professor Bob Mathieu, Director of CIRTL. Mathieu's office, at the top floor of the Astronomy Building, is full of posters depicting stars and nebulae. From the outset of the CIRTL project, Mathieu wanted to create an online diversity resource similar to the Student Assessment of Learning Gains and the Field-tested Learning Assessment Guide, two popular web sites dealing with teaching improvement. Over the course of the NSF grant, learning-through-diversity has become one of the three main "pillars," or core principles, of the project. "We thought it should be integrated into everything we did," Mathieu explains.

Now, as the CIRTL network expands beyond the original three institutions, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Pennsylvania State University, and Michigan State University, to include Howard University and the University of Colorado, Mathieu's plans for "learning-through-diversity" have expanded. "I'd like to distribute experience around the network," Mathieu says. Gesturing for emphasis, with a poster of stellar orbits behind him, Mathieu explains that CIRTL's goal is to build "a foundation for the nation."

His thoughts are certainly timely. As the NSF begins to require consideration of diversity and social impacts in their proposals, other funding agencies may follow suit. As this article demonstrates, initiatives such as WISE and CIRTL that support undergraduates, graduate students and faculty can help ensure women's voices will be heard in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Programs like these are developed to open up these doors for women across class, race, culture, and other differences so they can reach for the moon and the stars as they pass through.

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