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Psychologists Find Answers to Issues in STEM

Dr. Mary Murphy is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University.Dr. Mary Murphy is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University.

The barriers that keep women and people of color from pursuing studies and careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are complex, but through research and outreach social psychologists are presenting some pragmatic solutions.

After a college-speaking engagement at which she discussed her research on self and social identity threat and stereotype threat, Dr. Mary Murphy, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University, was approached by a female African-American student who shared her experience of feeling unwelcome in STEM. One involved going to see her assigned academic adviser, who told her that chemistry was a very difficult major and she might consider other options.

“Belonging to a stereotyped group makes you more vigilant to these situational cues because you’re more uncertain about whether or not others are going to feel that you belong in those situations,” says Murphy. “So you’re going to be paying attention to subtle situational cues to see the value of your identity in that context.”

Murphy is the principal investigator of the Mind and Identity in Context Lab at Indiana University. Her research centers on developing and testing theories about how people’s social identities and group belongings interact with the contexts they encounter. She examines how situational cues in one’s environment can make an individual feel safe or threatened.

Model behavior

Murphy’s work has shown how situational cues in STEM settings affect one’s physiology. Identity-threatening cues increase heart rate and stress response and make it much less likely one will be able to concentrate in that environment.

According to Murphy, institutions need to create more identity safe contexts where all students feel a sense of belonging in order to attract more women and people of color to STEM.

“Make sure faculty are aware of the situational cues that are being communicated in their classrooms, such as paying attention to who’s being called on and the subtle messages they give with the examples they provide in class,” she says. “There are ways to assign teams that actually make people feel more comfortable and included in those situations.”

Students should seek out role models that can help them develop effective strategies. Role models can also help individuals see science in a broader context, with an emphasis on societal good, which stokes motivation and persistence.

Dr. Catherine Good, an associate professor of psychology at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), pursued a doctorate in psychology after experiencing stereotype threat firsthand as a participant in a Ph.D. program in math at the University of Kansas. Although she was earning A’s and her professors were encouraging her to stay, Good felt she didn’t fit in.

While subsequently studying an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in math education and social psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, she went to a lecture by Dr. Joshua Aronson, who spoke about the factors that contribute to minority students’ underachievement, in particular negative stereotypes.

“Suddenly, my experience in that math department made so much sense,” Good says. “All these subtle comments and things were happening around me to make me question my role in the department, my ability to be successful.”

She wanted to better understand the phenomenon and develop programs to help women and people of color not experience the same. Good studies stereotype threat and the factors that contribute to pushing people out of the STEM domain.

“Cultural messages about who should be capable in the domain can impact both your performance but also your feelings of belonging,” she says. “To have to push against those types of cultural stereotypes adds an extra burden that individuals who don’t face those stereotypes don’t have to deal with.”

Culture change

Good notes that STEM culture often promotes the idea that, to be successful in STEM, individuals have to have an innate talent. The culture in STEM needs to change, she says, most notably making it much more explicit that success in the field is about hard work and effort.

“You never hear about the hard work, the effort, the struggles that scientists go through for their discoveries,” Good says. “[The message should be] that the students who come to the domain prepared to be inquisitive, to work hard, to try to collaborate with others are valued.”

Good’s work looks at the interventions and methods that can be used to help students overcome stereotypes. She works with students at all age levels, from elementary school through college.

“What I have been doing in my research with minority students and with women in STEM is to teach them that intelligence is in fact malleable,” Good says.

Good gives some simple lessons in neuroscience, explaining how students can grow their brains, so to speak, by putting themselves in educational contexts that push them to the limits of their abilities. By teaching students about neural plasticity, she helps them internalize and believe in the idea that intelligence in the STEM field can be developed through hard work, rather than it being innate.

“To keep minority students in STEM, it’s not just about boosting their achievement and changing their mindsets, but it’s also expanding the idea of mindset to include a belonging mindset as well,” she says. “What I’m finding in my recent work is that, when you can help students focus their feelings of belonging around their own efforts and engagement, that can provide a real buffer when they experience difficulties and when they find that they’re pushing against the cultural stereotypes.

“We may not be able to change how stereotypes are communicated through media,” she adds. “What we can change is the culture of our classrooms and who is valued in the classroom.”

Dr. Amanda Diekman, an associate professor of social psychology at Miami University of Ohio, says changing the way science is portrayed can provide greater motivation for women and minorities in STEM. There are general beliefs that STEM fields don’t afford opportunities to work with other people or help others either directly or indirectly.

“These are pretty robust beliefs that we see among men and women, among majority and minority group members, that STEM doesn’t afford these communal, other-oriented goals,” says Diekman. “When we bring those to mind, when we tell people about a scientist who engages in work collaboratively or we remind people … why scientists do the tasks they do, they see that altruistic bent. When they call that to mind or we provide it for them, they’re more positive.”

The professors’ data show that underrepresented groups are more likely to care about helping other people, benefiting society and working collaboratively.

In experimental settings, subjects were presented with scenarios of the life of a scientist.

The communal version is shown as being equally as difficult and rigorous, but it elicits greater interest from women and minorities.

Stereotypes are quite entrenched and not easily changed, but Diekman says her data show there are simple things teachers can do, such as creating group projects and encouraging peer mentoring. Most people in STEM fields do work collaboratively, so it’s a realistic depiction. Also, showing examples of a broader purpose provides motivation. This is relevant even at the college level.

“As you’re covering the science content, the math content, the technology content, there are examples of how this might be used down the road to benefit society,” Diekman says. “One place where this doesn’t happen is in those intro-level courses. Those are often taught as weed-out courses.

“The way we set up STEM education throughout the pipeline sometimes saves that relevance question for people who make it through all of the obstacles and hurdles. What we know about motivation is a lot of us need the motivation to get through the obstacles and hurdles.

“If our goal is to both broaden participation in terms of the representation of who’s in STEM fields, but also to recruit more students into STEM, then we really have to question the current models we have,” she adds. “Our work shows that communally oriented people care especially about this dimension.”

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