CSC News

August 28, 2020

Can a Simple Email Encourage Women to Stay in a STEM Program?

Although great efforts are being made to increase the number of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs, statistics show that women occupy just 28% of STEM jobs and account for only 17% of computer science majors and 21% of engineering majors.


Researchers from North Carolina State University and Kent State University want to know what can be done to broaden participation in STEM fields and improve the persistence of women in computer science. Based on existing social-psychology theory and the results of their 2018 pilot study, they suspect that the differences in career choices arise partially from gender differences in self-assessment of STEM ability while in school.


The researchers have received almost $300,000 in grant funding ($174,938 to NC State; $125,062 to Kent State) from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to test whether educational institutions can use a simple, easily-to-implement intervention, such as an encouraging email message, to increase the persistence of women in computer science and other STEM disciplines.  Their two-year grant project, titled “Analysis of a Simple, Low-Cost Intervention's Impact on Retention of Women in Computer Science,” is funded by the NSF Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: Education and Human Resources program.


Principal investigators of the grant include Dr. Bita Akram, assistant teaching professor, Dr. Tiffany Barnes, professor of computer science, Dr. Thomas Price, assistant professor of computer science and Dr. Lina Battestilli, associate teaching professor of computer science from NC State, along with collaboration from Dr. Susan Fisk, an assistant professor of sociology at Kent State.


To test their hypothesis on improving persistence, they are using a “lightweight” self-assessment intervention in introductory computer science courses, emailing students contextual information about their performance designed to improve their self-assessed ability. They will explicitly tell the student that they are “a top performer in the class and that they should consider getting involved in undergraduate computer science research.”


Their project includes testing the self-assessment on a larger scale using:


  • Field experiments in introductory computer science courses with approximately 2,800 students at NC State (including both majors and non-majors) to determine the effect of the self-assessment intervention on self-assessments of ability, persistence intentions, enrollments in follow-up computer science courses and involvement in undergraduate research.
  • 60 qualitative interviews with students in the targeted introductory courses to understand the mechanisms by which the intervention succeeded, or reasons it failed.
  • Online experiments at Kent State with 280 novice programmers to determine what kind of feedback is most potent at increasing self-assessments of ability.


Their 2018 pilot study involving 193 students in an introductory computer science course and conducted by Dr. Susan Fisk, Dr. Kathryn Stolee (associate professor at NC State) and Dr. Lina Battestilli showed that the intervention significantly increased all students' self-assessed computer science ability and it also increased women's persistence intentions. It also found that changing the wording of a single email increased women's computer science persistence intentions by 18%.


The researchers are also hoping that this project will help them understand how self-assessed ability impacts the persistence of other underrepresented and marginalized groups in STEM.



The original article about this work written by Jim Maxwell appeared on the Kent State College of Arts and Sciences website.

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