Cultural constraints and biases keep women and people of color from entering and remaining in science, technology, engineering, and math. Washington State University and other national universities are working to increase the participation of these underrepresented minorities.

When she was an undergraduate studying mathematics at Vassar College, 19-year-old Molly Kelton applied to a National Science Foundation-funded program called Research Experiences for Undergraduates. A phone interview ensued with a male professor who, seemingly out of the blue, asked Kelton if she had a boyfriend.

“Why?” she asked, taken aback by such a personal question.

“Because,” the professor responded, “girls who come here and have boyfriends can’t focus on the research. And that’s a problem because, in general, girls are already worse at mathematics.”

Stunned, Kelton says she didn’t know what hit her. She shared the incident with one of her Vassar professors, who was horrified and said she should report it.

Molly Kelton
Molly Kelton (Courtesy WSU College of Education)

“I don’t think anything ever came of it,” she says. She got a different REU position and, out of the research she conducted, wrote and published a paper, launching her academic career. Now an assistant professor of mathematics education at Washington State University, Kelton says that ugly interview got her thinking about the problem of inclusion.

Who gets to be a mathematician? Or a scientist, an engineer, or a computer programmer? Time was, the majority of programmers were women but the number of women in computer science has declined since 1991. After decades of effort and millions of dollars spent, the participation of women in engineering is still flatlined at around 20 percent of the workforce.

Women, as well as other underrepresented minorities in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—often face issues of bias, both conscious and not, which manifests as microaggressions or worse. Media and other stereotypes are constantly reinforcing the notion that they don’t belong in STEM and are better at other things.

Kelton is far from alone in working to counter the cultural constraints and biases that keep women and people of color from entering and remaining in STEM fields. Professor and Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture Dean Emeritus Candis Claiborn is working on a project to understand why more young women and people of color don’t stay in engineering programs. Sociologist Julie Kmec and an international team of collaborators are exploring the reasons why there are more women engineers in some predominantly Muslim countries than there are in the United States. And Kelton herself uses art and movement to disrupt assumptions about what it means to be a mathematician or scientist.


It starts early

Angela Jones (’94 English) is the CEO of Washington STEM, a nonprofit organization that collaborates with communities, businesses, and educators to ensure youth have equitable access to STEM education. They work with ten regional STEM networks across the state to help direct resources and scale successful programs that aim to ensure that there is cradle to career support for STEM skills. This means working to strengthen math skills for the state’s youngest students so they can start kindergarten strong as well as helping identify and work in cross-sector partnership to establish career pathways for local students, which will in turn help meet future economic needs.

Angela Jones
Angela Jones (Courtesy Washington STEM)

Washington ranks second in the nation, she points out, in concentration of STEM jobs: from agriculture to aeronautics to computer science, Washington is a thriving hub of technological innovation.

But, she adds, “we’re in the bottom five in the country of students going on to post-secondary education. These folks are not going to be able to compete for all the jobs that are available” in the state, meaning employers have to bring in qualified workers from other states and countries.

From electricians to rocket scientists, Washington is not alone in suffering a homegrown shortage of skilled STEM workers. Part of the problem, Jones says, starts in a child’s first brush with education.

“When my son was born 13 years ago,” she says, “his dad and I talked and said we’ll never tell him that math and science are hard. As kids, we were always told, ‘It’s OK, math and science are hard.’ But no one says to their kid, ‘You know what, English is hard. It’s OK if you don’t know how to read and write. It’s OK to be illiterate.’ Nobody says that! So why don’t we have that same viewpoint of math?

“We don’t socialize STEM as cool,” Jones continues. “And yet, everyone wants to be able to hold their iPhones” to chat, or check their social media. Someone had to invent the phone and all those apps—and under the hood are mathematics, computer science, and all manner of engineering challenges. She makes the same point about cosmetics, the development of which takes a lot of chemistry. Same with many of the foods we eat, from lattes to chicken nuggets, which require an applied form of chemistry called food science.

“So how do we disrupt that norm about STEM education?” Jones wants to know. “It should be a core part of any curriculum because of the critical thinking and analysis skills you need in any job,” whether STEM-related or not.

Kmec points out that “even though we complain about gendered occupations, we teach kids gendered ideas about what they’re good at. Girls are told they’re better at English. We have sex segregated sports,” among many other segregated activities kids participate in. By the time they’re adults, they enter a workforce that is highly gendered.

Kelton collects representations of mathematicians in the media. “In pop culture we see these very narrow and problematic representations of scientists and engineers and mathematicians,” she says. The popular TV show Numbers, for instance, “features a white male mathematician with so much inborn genius that he is unrelatable. That’s the stereotype of a mathematician. And STEM more generally is still very coded as a white male enterprise.”

There are others: John Nash, white, a genius, and mentally ill in A Beautiful Mind. Or take Hidden Figures, which features three African-American women mathematicians who helped put the first astronauts in space. While Hidden Figures was lauded for advancing the visibility of women of color in science, Kelton was dismayed to hear an interview with one of the Black actors who said she had to learn a whole new vocabulary to be able to play the part of a mathematician. Then there’s Beyoncé’s song “1+1,” which has the line “I don’t know much about algebra.”

“It’s normal in our culture to be averse to math,” Kelton sighs. “That’s what people see and hear in the media.”

Like Beyoncé, Kelton says that children develop “discipline-specific identities from a very young age. They say, ‘I’m not a math person,’ or ‘I love science, I hate art.’” She’s interested in getting the anti-science kids to see the world a little differently. “Often we find that there are kids who have anti-science identities but feel very connected to particular arts practices.”

For Kelton, a contributing problem is that our education system is still largely premised on mind-body dualism, the idea that mental phenomena are not physical nor influenced by the body. In fact, though, the motor system affects the way our brains work just as our brains influence how our bodies work. The mind is in the body, not a separate metaphysical entity.

“There’s a long tradition of thinking about math as a transcendental disembodied thing that’s up there,” she says, gesturing vaguely skyward. “And there’s quite a few pedagogical problems with that! It’s a setup for learners’ failure, because it’s this thing you can’t access.” She says there’s a growing body of evidence that thinking is always embodied. “There’s hard-to-see but nevertheless measurable motor engagement when people think about algebra equations.”

Indeed, cognitive neuroscientist Gina Rippon, writes in her recent book, Gender and Our Brains, that there’s plenty of research to show that children’s gender-segregated activities account for many of the differences we see between boys and girls. Boys use computers more, and play more video games, research has demonstrated, and such play is “a powerful predictor of certain spatial skills. … If being male means that you have much greater experience of constructing things or manipulating complex 3D representations (there is an uncanny similarity between the images used in mental rotation tasks and LEGO instructions), it is very likely that that will show up in your brain. Brains reflect the lives they have lived, not just the sex of their owners.”

Dualism is inhumane, Kelton argues. “I think it’s at the root of why children don’t get to move enough in school.”

As a doctoral student, Kelton led a couple projects that aimed to demonstrate that moving and physically experiencing mathematical concepts is a viable way of teaching kids to enjoy math. In Math Moves, she and her collaborators set up several interactive museum exhibits that got kids (and their adult companions) to experience ratio and proportion by using their bodies. In one, the kid stands in front of a bright light that projects her shadow on a grid on a big wall. As she moves, she begins to detect the pattern of inverse proportion that determines the size of her shadow. Kids had fun while doing math, running around becoming shadow Hulks.

Another project was Taping Shape, an interactive exhibit staged at the Fleet Science Center in San Diego. Taping Shape was a huge sculpture made, Kelton says, “out of a humble material,” packing tape. “By design, you could walk around the inside of math objects,” like a torus, a donut-shaped object that fascinates geometers. “We strapped head cams on families and studied the video, where we found a lot of really rich engagement. Part of the intent of that is to be more inclusive. Everyone has a body, even if they are differently enabled.”


Doing good and doing well

One of the arguments for greater diversity in STEM education and its associated professions is what Jones calls “the moral imperative:” no matter their gender or skin color or religion, everyone deserves to make a living, whether it’s as an electrician or an electrical engineer.

But diversity results in improved productivity and innovative solutions to challenges—issues such as climate change, food, and energy all benefit from having more eyeballs examining them from a greater number of perspectives.

“The more people who look at a problem, the better the solutions,” Claiborn says. “Taking advantage of the entire population to address global issues, to make sure you get the best solutions—those are reasons enough to embrace diversity in STEM.

“Degrees that lead to working on health, energy, and the environment, they’re big picture topics of global concern, and I think women are drawn to those,” Claiborn continues. “The Engineering Grand Challenges program started in 2008,” she says, with the idea to develop an army of engineers to address global issues. Although WSU isn’t involved, engineering deans have reported that the program attracts a disproportionate number of women. “And if you look at Engineers without Borders,” a student-run organization at WSU and many other schools, “it’s heavily populated by women and underrepresented minorities.”

Candis Claiborn
Candis Claiborn (Courtesy Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture)

“If you’re a lawyer or a doctor,” Kmec adds, “you know you helped that client or patient. Engineers probably save more lives, though, by bringing in fresh water, and so forth.” But the United States doesn’t need roads to make a community accessible to the rest of the world, nor do we have especially pressing water distribution issues, potentially making engineering less appealing to women.

Jones, who talks to many professionals to understand their recruitment and retention concerns, says that, “men and women approach STEM differently at times. I was talking to an engineering prof who observed that women want to think in terms of, ‘How will what I’m doing affect my community and my fellow humans?’ A lot of times males approach it from, ‘What’s the issue in front of us, what is the issue we need to resolve?’ When you combine both of those? That’s an incredibly powerful way to problem solve.”


Improving diversity through HEAL

Kelton says the arts are a tool to engage learners in STEM. By disrupting assumptions about science and math perceptions, STEM studies become more playful and creative. Together with WSU entomologist and artist Jeb Owen and colleagues in WSU Extension, Kelton has a National Institutes of Health grant to “bring science to historically underrepresented and non-dominant communities.”

Working with Latinx communities in central Washington, the HEAL project—short for Health Education through Arts-Based Learning—focuses “on creating new inroads into STEM,” Kelton says. “The communities we work with are differentially impacted by West Nile Virus; they have higher rates of infection because they are a labor force in agriculture. We are concerned about health outcomes and STEM careers in biomedicine,” and empowering communities to take more direct control of their health-care needs by bringing more underrepresented people into the field.

Just as Latinx ag workers are disproportionately affected by ag-related health issues, so too are they more in need of teaching strategies that let them see themselves in STEM as doctors, engineers, and microbiologists. Kelton’s HEAL project teaches kids to think holistically about, for instance, the gut microbiome.

“With the human microbiome, we don’t just want them to understand microbes and how they work but also how they are connected to human health and all the pathways to that,” she says. Not only do learners get a better sense of the complexity of an issue but they also learn that there are multiple career paths that might enable them to address that issue.

“We’re very careful to not use elitist forms of art. We do comic books with kids, for example. That helps kids find another pathway into science. And then there’s an epiphany: ‘I can use art to engage in something I didn’t think I’d be good at!’”

Whether students take up a career in STEM, or “simply develop a lifelong interest and sense of empowerment in science and math,” the long-term goal is greater engagement. “Shorter term, we are developing what we hope will be a fairly comprehensive curriculum for schools and afterschool programs that support kids in using art to think about complex scientific systems.”


Women seeking balance

Claiborn and Kmec are both tackling the issue of how to recruit and retain women and underrepresented groups in STEM.

Claiborn has an NSF grant to investigate student engagement, persistence and success among undergraduate engineering students, including women and underrepresented minorities. Working with Olusola Adesope, a professor of educational psychology in the College of Education, and Angela Minichiello, an engineering education professor at Utah State University, they’re hoping to learn why students leave engineering programs–and what might be done to keep them engaged. They are especially interested in retaining women and members of underrepresented groups.

Meanwhile, Kmec and her colleagues have been working on a long-term study of female engineers in predominantly Muslim countries.

Julie Kmec
Julie Kmec (Courtesy WSU Department of Sociology)

Kmec and her collaborators, in their cross-cultural study of engineering education and practice, points out that in the United States there are more “off-ramps: If you fail at math once, that’s it, ‘I’m not good enough.’ And it happens early, before junior high.” She contrasts this with Malaysia, Tunisia, and other countries where women work as engineers at a much higher proportion.

“In Malaysia, there is no expressed conflict between being female and an engineer. The two identities can exist side by side without tension. Engineering aligned well with girls who love math and physics, and they were encouraged to do so from a young age by parents, fathers, and teachers. Remedial classes helped those who needed to get up to speed in math.”

Kmec and her research team just garnered an Amazon Catalyst grant to produce a virtual reality environment that will make use of 3,000 minutes of audio interviews of women in Malaysia and elsewhere.

“Viewers will put on VR goggles and choose a theme like ‘Work and Family’ that shows how women in these other countries dealt with their struggles. No one has ever looked at how a tool like this could be used to help women deal with career, home, and life,” says Kmec. She thinks that eventually the program might be useful to human resource departments to develop strategies that make women and underrepresented people more welcome in the STEM workplace.

Indeed, Jones says, “One of the challenges is, how do we disrupt the norm in the workplace? That environment, where women don’t feel welcome, where they’re asked, ‘Why are you here?’ I’ve heard that said of classrooms, too. That’s a culture that was created over time. I’ve talked to different companies, too, and said, ‘You can change that!’ You have to be intentional about making people feel welcome and valued.” Disruption and change, she says, “have to come from multiple directions. People I talk to really want to see workplace culture change but a lot of times they don’t know how to even start that.”

But that’s precisely why researchers at WSU and elsewhere are investigating this complex situation from multiple perspectives. How to recruit and retain women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields is not just a good idea: with the challenges we collectively face, our futures may depend on it.

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Taping Shape interactive exhibit