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Student research investigates low female enrollment in STEM courses

Enrollment numbers for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) courses in the U.S. have been staggeringly low and are continuing to drop; Sarah Dickinson, an Applied Psychology major at Penn State Berks who will graduate on December 19, wanted to find out why.

Guiding Dickinson along the way was her internship adviser, Dr. Sadan Kulturel-Konak, Associate Professor of Management Information Systems and Coordinator of the Engineering Entrepreneurship Minor. Kulturel-Konak was the recipient of a National Science Foundation Research Opportunity Award in 2009 for gender research.

The research indicates that men and women generally have different learning styles. STEM courses are taught using an approach that is consistent with men's learning styles, rather than women's. The research concludes that this approach is causing women to lose interest in STEM courses.

"Most studies imply that it is not inability, but disinterest that keeps women away from pursuing careers in the information and computer science fields," explains Dickinson. "The research shows that men tend to prefer an analytical approach to learning, consistent with how STEM classes are being taught, whereas women tend to prefer hands-on experience."

"Simply changing the teaching approach to be more accommodating to both genders' learning styles could increase the enrollment and retention of female students in STEM courses," states Dickinson.

Some suggestions include using a multidisciplinary approach in the classroom that incorporates real-life applications and practical examples, encouraging collaboration rather than competition, involving students in the learning process rather than simply presenting information, and using internships or work study as a means to apply coursework to real-life experiences.

As part of a research internship in Applied Psychology, Dickinson completed a literature review of "Review of Gender Differences in Learning Styles: Suggestions for Information Technology Education." She was selected by faculty members at the college to receive the Young Investigator Award at the 2009 Berks Academic Achievement Awards Ceremony for her work.

Dickinson was surprised by the award, especially since she entered her research into the Engineering, Business, and Computing category, rather than the Humanities, Arts, and Social Science category where Applied Psychology is housed academically.

"I was shocked and honored when I received the Young Investigator Award because I entered into a division outside of my major," comments Dickinson. "I really appreciated the recognition."

"As someone who teaches technology classes, I see firsthand the lack of women in these classes," states Kulturel-Konak. "I knew Sarah was a dedicated student who was up to the task of completing an intense research project like this."

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Kulturel-Konak $38,050 of a $448,793 grant to perform supplemental research on "Gender in Science and Engineering: Exploration of the Effects of Race, Ethnicity, and Socioeconomic Class on Gender Stereotyping of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Disciplines."

Working with Kulturel-Konak and other students, Dickinson helped to develop a learning-styles survey that is aimed at collecting empirical data about students' learning preferences.

"The question I'm asking myself now, after working with Sarah, is 'How can we get teachers to actually do these things and be more accommodating to all learning styles?" states Kulturel-Konak. "One of the most rewarding parts about working with Sarah was that when I first met her, she wasn't completely sure about graduate school. After completing this research she knew she was ready to handle graduate-level work."

Dickinson is currently attending graduate school at Millersville University where she is continuing her studies in psychology.
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