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
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
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
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
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
"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,"
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.