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US Women Best Prepared for STEM Studies

American women entering college are the best prepared academically to successfully graduate with a STEM degree (82 percent), according to a survey of faculty from the nation’s top 200 research universities who chair STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) departments. The survey, conducted by Bayer Corp., is the fifth to examine the underrepresentation of women, African-Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians in many US STEM fields.

The chairs say being discouraged from a STEM career is still an issue for both female and underrepresented minority STEM undergraduate students (59 percent) and that traditional rigorous introductory instructional approaches that “weed out” students early on from STEM studies are generally harmful and more so to URM (56 percent) and female (27 percent) students compared to majority students (i.e. Caucasian and Asian males). Yet, a majority (57 percent) of the chairs do not see a need to significantly change their introductory instructional methods in order to retain more STEM students, including women and URMs.

The Bayer Facts of Science Education XV survey asked the chairs, who are largely male (87 percent) and Caucasian (88 percent), to shed light on the undergraduate environment in which today’s female and minority STEM students make their career decisions.

“One of the greatest challenges most universities face is changing the culture of teaching and learning in STEM courses,” said Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Hrabowski chaired the National Academies committee that produced the 2010 report, “Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science & Technology Talent at the Crossroads.”

“Too often, we in higher education believe high quality is related to how many students are weeded out of STEM courses,” Hrabowski continued. “Instead, the emphasis should be on rigorous course work coupled with support, together leading to larger numbers of students succeeding academically. We should also be giving faculty support, including professional development opportunities, enabling them to redesign courses, make the best use of technology, and encourage group collaboration.”

The Bayer survey also found that most institutions don’t have a STEM diversity plan and that more student academic support is needed.

“The major story that emerges from this survey is the failure of universities, STEM departments, and professors to recognize and understand the role they play in undermining or promoting women and underrepresented minority students’ success in seeking and completing STEM degrees,” said Mae C. Jemison, astronaut, medical doctor, chemical engineer and Bayer’s longtime Making Science Make Sense spokesperson.

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