Author
Author Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 79, Issue 7 - April 2020
PublisherITEEA, Reston, VA
ReleasedMarch 18, 2020
Copyright2020
ISBN2158-0502
Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 79, Issue 7 - April 2020

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INCREASING FEMALE ENROLLMENT IN TECHNOLOGY AND ENGINEERING CLASSES: AN ALL-FEMALE CLASS

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Introduction

High school Technology and Engineering (TE) classes are, in the majority, comprised of male students (USDE, 2012). This data point is also true in middle and junior high school elective TE classes. In light of the rapid growth of technology and engineering career opportunities, the lack of women students enrolling in middle, junior high, and high school TE classes is problematic. If the enrollment disparity is not addressed, then jobs in the technology and engineering industry will continue to be dominated by males, which may limit the innovation and growth of the TE industry. In an effort to understand and address this issue, a junior high CTE/TE teacher decided to modify how he organized his classes—which he believed would be a simple and low-cost solution. 

 

The teacher was concerned because he felt that technological literacy was for all people, and if only male students were taking his class, then in some ways he was failing as a teacher. Over the years he said he had made efforts to invite more female students to take TE classes by recruiting them from the one TE class required for all 7th graders, by making posters advertising his program and classes, and by sending letters and flyers home to all the female students in his school detailing activities and learning outcomes experienced in his TE classes. Most of his efforts resulted in limited enrollment changes.

 

The following is an anecdote from the teacher about this experience. He wrote:

 

“As a junior high teacher, I teach classes that are both required and elective. The required class I teach is 7th grade College and Career Awareness. At the end of the school year, I had a conversation with a female student and asked her if she was taking my class the following year. She said that she was going to and was excited. Sadly, the next day she came to me and told me that her parents would not allow her to take my class because it was a class for boys. This old persistent stereotype is holding my female students back, and worse, the stereotype prevents female students from becoming more prepared for their future degrees and careers.

 

After a few years of trying to convince females to take my classes or any of the other tech and engineering classes offered at my school, the classes were still mostly comprised of male students. In my required class, I had a good mix of male and female, but I wanted to build a strong program that promoted equity to both male and female students outside of the required class; therefore, I needed more female students in my other (elective) classes.”

 

The teacher’s “simple and low-cost” solution was to change his classes from mixed gender to solely male or female classes. He went to his administration and proposed the idea of having an all-female technology and engineering class to help increase enrollment. The administration seemed on board, and they said they would try to implement the idea. Sadly, it was later rejected because they were unsure that the school could actually offer such a class at the school. The administration suggested that they had to check into the feasibility and legality of having gender-exclusive classes. This was somewhat perplexing because the same class would be offered twice, one for female students, and the other for male students.

 

Consequently, at the beginning of the next school year the teacher went to his administration and proposed the idea a second time. This time the teacher had done some research into other schools that offered all-female classes, and explained that although any student could enroll in either class, two classes would be advertised as one being for female students, and the other for male students. The teacher explained that he was going to cover all of the same standards and objectives in each class, but that he would adjust all of the class assignments toward female interests. The reason the teacher decided to modify his assignments was a result of a research project that investigated a similar topic. The study took a “new angle on gender research by specifically considering whether there is a gender gap caused by the models implemented to teach biology (the specific lesson examples and content used to teach a broader biology topic, e.g., dust mites as a model of symbiosis), and how these models affect student interest, attitude, and learning” (Jensen, In press). The initial part of the research asked students in kindergarten through 6th grade to circle the image about which they’d prefer to learn, e.g., butterflies or spiders; ladybugs or termites; eagles or flamingos. The data showed that the female students favored butterflies, ladybugs, and flamingos, whereas the male students favored learning about spiders, termites, and eagles. In light of the research the teacher presented, the administration agreed to the proposed two classes (Class A: female, and Class B: male).

 

The teacher shared that he was immediately able to observe the benefit of his decision:

 

“I was able to fill multiple classes with all females. Mission accomplished, right?! No. I learned several other important things. Not only did I fill my classes with more female students, but I learned a lot about student behavior, classroom management, and student performance. For example, I learned that I could cover more material in my all-female classes than in my male-dominated classes. I believe this was a result of the female students being more mature and more focused academically.”

 

The teacher also shared several other interesting insights. First, he observed that the all-female class was more effective in solving engineering problems, completed projects quicker, and had better overall grades than his mixed-gender class, and much quicker than his all-male class. As a result of these observations, the teacher decided to do some further investigation. He decided to collect some data from an ad hoc experiment about how engineering stereotypes affected his classes.

TETApr20WalshTable1

Background

Nontraditional careers are those dominated by one gender. Matt Rocheleau presented data about the percentage of female students in various STEM fields (Table 1):


The data suggests that there is not a career where even one quarter of the engineers are female. Data such as this and many other studies clearly highlight that engineering careers have been, in the majority, filled by males for many years, and engineering still remains a heavily male profession (Rocheleau, 2016).

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Research, however, shows that in recent years the female enrollment in engineering majors at the university level has increased; ironically, industry only shows that 13% of engineers are female (Rincon, 2018). Researchers have found that, despite the efforts to promote engineering for females, there remains a climate not optimal for female engineers. Thirty percent attribute leaving engineering, or other STEM majors and careers, because of a male-centric work environment (Rincon, 2018). Because of this, stereotypes of the past—“engineering is a male field”—are still propagated today. Obviously many efforts are needed to correct this stereotype.

 

One common solution many universities are offering is to provide more scholarships to females who study engineering, which has led to some enrollment success. An additional potential solution is to expose female students to engineering at an earlier age (Koebler, 2011). 

 

In recent decades there have been a lot of organizations, such as the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), working to encourage female engineers. Even campaigns like “I Look Like an Engineer” with hashtags #ILookLikeAnEngineer on many social media platforms are trying to change perceptions and stereotypes. They do this by picturing female or racially diverse engineers. The goal of these campaigns is to help people overcome the stereotypical image of a white male engineer. They had a lot of success, including over 86,000 tweets in over 50 countries sharing the message. SWE and other programs and organizations believe that awareness is the primary key to helping eliminate the false stereotype.

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Findings from the All-Female Jr. High Technology and Engineering Classes

In light of the qualitative observations the teacher made, he did some further reading about teaching engineering to specific groups, be it gender, ethnicity, or age. The teacher found a study by researchers in Beijing (Lui, et al., 2019). An experiment was conducted in which researchers had students draw engineers. The teacher took this same idea and  gave his students 10-15 minutes to draw an engineer. He did not mention gender so as not to bias the results. He decided to have his classes draw what they believed an engineer looked like. He anticipated that females would draw male-looking engineers, as that is what Lui’s research discovered.

 

The demographics of the teacher’s classes was that two classes were completely female between the ages of 12 and 13. The classes were composed of mostly middle class Caucasian students. Table 2 (below) shows a demographic description.

 

The results from the drawing experiment showed that not one student from the mixed class drew a female engineer. However, in the female classes at least 42% of the drawings were clearly female engineers. Below is a table with the data from the drawings.

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This data is interesting because no one in the mixed class drew a female, while 29 females in the all-female classes clearly drew female engineers. More students may have drawn females, but 16 drawings from the female classes were too difficult to determine if the drawing was clearly male or female, and were thus labeled in the table as "undetermined."

 

In summary, females do see themselves or other females as engineers when they are grouped with other females in an engineering-type class. In contrast, males did not see (draw) any engineers as females. The stereotype therefore may be perpetuated by males.

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Observational Data

The teacher also found that classroom management in an all-female class is less challenging than an all-male or mixed class. The teacher shared that:

 

“Females are quieter and more respectful to the instructor when compared with the more male-dominated class. Additionally, female students listen to the directions better (I had to re-state expectations and repeat instruction much less in the female classes than the male classes), and females are less distracted by their fellow classmates. Additionally, the all-female classes took more time to plan and figure out the assignments than the mixed or male classes did. By doing this they were able to finish the assignment quicker than their mixed counterparts.”

 

The teacher also said that: “The all-female classes’ ideas were more creative and the solutions more fully solved. And the female classes worked better as collaborative teams. For example, when a student finished their work they would ask if they could help other students in the class. Overall, the completion rate of assignments and the correctness of the work is higher with the all-female classes.”

 

A final interesting observation the teacher made was student grades. He shared that at his school each day there is a grade check of all the students for all classes. He reported that the female classes on average had higher grades than the mixed classes.

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Conclusion

Although this article highlights only one teacher’s effort to increase female interest in engineering, his findings about female enrollment and performance are interesting. He found that female enrollment increased when an all-female class was offered. Stereotypes of engineers being all male decreased in the all-female classes. Female classes needed less classroom management, were more creative, took less planning time and, in the end, finished assignments more completely and accurately than mixed classes.

 

Although many of the observations and data outlined above seem positive towards all-female engineering classes, there were some limitations to what the teacher did. First, he may have had only females sign up because they wanted to be with their friends. Also, by simply offering a new class, numbers could have increased as opposed to females actually being interested in engineering. It would be important to track his class(es) to see if the findings remain constant.

 

Regardless of the limitations of the teacher’s informal research study, his efforts should be applauded, as he is making efforts to reduce biases and stereotypes. Additionally, his story provides a helpful context, lens, and anecdote others could use to make similar changes, or use to further their own efforts to grow their programs, classes, and enrollment, in addition to breaking down stereotypes.   

 

References

Jensen, J. (In press). Spiders or butterflies? Despite students preferences, gender-biased lesson models do not interest, attitude, or learning in biology.

Koebler, J. (2011, December). 9 college scholarships for women in STEM. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/stem-education/2011/12/13/9-college-scholarships-for-women-in-stem

Liu, M. & Chiang, F. K. (2019). Middle school students’ perceptions of engineers: A case study of Beijing students. International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 1-28.

Rincon, R. (2018, September). SWE research update: Women in engineering by the numbers. Retrieved from https://alltogether.swe.org/2018/09/swe-research-update-women-in-engineering-by-the-numbers/

Rocheleau, M. (2016). Chart: The percentage of women and men in each profession. Retrieved from www.bostonglobe.com

Tan, A. (2015 August). ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign expands from Twitter to Billboard in fight against stereotypes. Retrived from https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/ilooklikeanengineer-campaign-expands-twitter-billboard-fight-stereotypes/story?id=32945366

U.S. Department of Education. (2014). National assessment of career and technical education. Retrieved from www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/sectech/nacte/career-technical-education/final-report.pdf

 

 

Thomas Walsh is a junior high Technology and Engineering Teacher at American Fork Junior High. He is also a master’s student at Brigham Young University (BYU) in the Technology and Engineering Education program.

Geoffrey A. Wright, Ph.D., DTE is an associate professor of Technology and Engineering Studies at BYU. His areas of teaching and research focus on STEM education, innovation, media arts, and computational literacy. He can be reached at ge.wright@gmail.com.