Op-ed: How Universities Can Help STEM Students Succeed

(See original US News article)

The author offers five ways to encourage those studying science, technology, engineering and math.

By Pooja Sankar

I grew up in a rural Indian village with no electricity and no running water. There I attended an all-girls school, left the house only when escorted by my father, and was instructed to drop my eyes when boys or men walked by. While many of my classmates were being married off by eighth and ninth grade, I studied voraciously. My studies paid off, and I managed to become the first woman in my town to gain acceptance to the elite Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur.

College for me was an overwhelming experience. My (almost all male) classmates were razor smart, and my studies were really, really hard. As one of only three women in the program and as someone who had been taught not to look men in the eyes, much less talk to them or ask them for help, I found myself often toiling alone at 6 a.m. in the computer lab, totally stuck, while my male classmates did exactly what they should have been doing: They collaborated. They helped each other learn and succeed. I, meanwhile, had no clue where to turn for help.

After struggling through IIT, I completed master’s degrees in the U.S. at the University of Maryland and Stanford University. I scored software development jobs at Oracle and Facebook. To my surprise, at every school I attended and every place I worked, I heard tales of isolation from my U.S.- and Canadian-educated female classmates and co-workers. Isolation in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – was not solely an Indian phenomenon.

Without question, it’s a great time to have a computer science or engineering degree: Top graduates command impressive salaries and perks, and there are predicted to be so many jobs available that many will go unfilled. Yet, women and minorities are largely left out. Women earn only 18 percent of undergraduate computer science degrees, the same percentage of computer science degrees earned collectively by blacks and Hispanics. Even when women and minorities do persevere and graduate with engineering degrees, it can be a lonely and dispiriting pursuit.

A few years ago, as an MBA student at Stanford, I built a free tool to help women and under-served groups gain confidence in their STEM pursuits. Piazza is now used by 30,000 STEM professors and close to a million students at 1,000 schools, including all of the top U.S. engineering programs. Based on the latest academic research, and input from our professor and student users, we’ve learned that there’s a fair bit that universities can do – and certain visionary professors and administrators are already doing – to help increase comfort levels among women and minorities studying STEM. Many of these practices, incidentally, would work well in junior high and high school environments as well.

1. Follow Harvey Mudd’s lead and build safety in numbers: Isolation has been found to be a major reason female STEM professionals leave their careers, and we believe the same holds true for attrition out of STEM degrees. Harvey Mudd College, where 40 percent of computer science majors are women, reduces isolation by segregating introductory computer science classes by experience. The students who have been coding since childhood take one class, while the students who are new to computer science – many of them women – take a separate class. As an added bonus, the curriculum is designed to be fun and engaging. Thus, the introductory computer science class, which at some schools is a weeding out, survival-of-the-fittest experience, is instead a welcoming onramp to a STEM degree.

2. Professors and teachers (and managers and parents!) should encourage women and minorities to speak up  either live or online: A study found that male students with male instructors spoke on average two and a half times longer than their female classmates. When women do speak, they’re more likely to be interrupted, a phenomenon outlined in Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s New York Times piece appropriately titled “Speaking While Female.” Either as a parent or an instructor, actively encourage female and minority students to speak up, and do your best to ensure that their classmates hear them out; outside of class, provide alternative tools to those students who are too self-conscious or introverted to speak in front of their peers.

Online forums can provide an outlet for all students to participate in a comfortable environment, where students are judged by the quality of their contributions, and not by their appearance. Dr. Jeff Offutt, a software engineering professor at George Mason University, had a female Ph.D. student who, as the only female in the room, rarely spoke in class. Once he offered her an online forum to discuss coursework, she became one of the most prolific and thoughtful contributors to class discussions.

Several emerging technologies encourage active learning (instead of pure lecture-based learning), which has been found to significantly improve student performance, particularly among underserved groups. On our platform, for example, female technical students actually ask more questions than their male peers.

3. Recruit female and minority STEM instructors: The same study that found female students spoke less than male students when they had male instructors also found that female students spoke three times longer when they had female instructors. Given that only 14 percent of engineering tenure-track faculty are female and 6.5 percent are African-American or Hispanic, most of a student’s engineering professors will likely be male and white or Asian. That said, a somewhat more encouraging 22 percent of engineering doctoral students are female and 7.7 percent are African-American or Hispanic.

Professors can encourage strong female or minority upperclassmen and graduate-level students to serve as teaching assistants, and of course administrators can seek to hire high-quality female and minority faculty. Their presence will likely both increase feelings of inclusion among female or minority undergraduate students and encourage those students to speak up.

4. Assign project groups rather than letting students choose them: In college, my feelings of isolation were intensified by my observations of collaboration among my male classmates and my exclusion (which I’m sure was unintentional on my classmates’ part) from those activities. Though my situation was extreme, the reality is that if you allow students to choose their homework or project partners, they typically will choose peers like themselves.

Instead, teachers and professors should consider assigning project and homework groups, at least some of the time, to ensure that every student who feels different due to gender, ethnic background, socioeconomics or any factor has a chance to learn through collaboration and build connections to fellow students. The ability to work well with a diverse group of people is a skill that extends well beyond the classroom and into the 21st century workforce.

5. Reach beyond the classroom:
 Administrators and faculty can sponsor a Women in Computing club. They can invite female engineering alumni (or parents, if in a K-12 environment) to speak on campus, or promote participation in mentoring organizations like the campus groups at Carnegie Mellon Universityand University of Waterloo, national groups like the Institute for African-American Mentoring in Computer Sciences, or K-12 programs like those offered by University of Pennsylvania and independent groups like Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code.

Another option is sponsoring students to attend events such as The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing or the Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing. The National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers provide excellent events and resources, too. Forging those connections will inspire students to pursue or keep pursuing an engineering or computer science degree and will help them persevere through those long and lonely nights of study.

It’s my sincere hope that by sharing these best practices we can create a more inclusive and diverse learning environment to benefit all our students.