From Northern Today (NIU staff newsletter), November 13, 2000


NIU researchers aim to increase women's participation in math

By Tom Parisi, Staff Reporter

NIU researchers are planning to launch a project aimed at increasing women's participation in high-level math courses, where females traditionally have been under-represented on college campuses nationwide.

The researchers are developing both a special calculus course, geared toward the ways women learn, and a "social-norms" advertising blitz that will attempt to reverse negative misperceptions about women's abilities in math. The social-norms campaign will be patterned after NIU's nationally recognized social-norms program used to curb alcohol consumption among students.

The National Science Foundation is providing $100,000 in funding to NIU researchers Amy Levin, director of Women's Studies, and Diana Steele, professor of mathematical sciences. Their project targets freshmen and is titled "E-WOMS: Expanding Women's Opportunities Through Mathematical Sciences."

Diana Steele
"In conversations with women on campus, it's very clear that a lot of them share the larger social misperception that they have less ability or interest in math, that it's a male field," Levin said.

"Nationally, the retention rate s in advanced mathematics courses are lower for women than men," she added. "Because the workplace requires increasingly advanced computational and technological skills, women who do not continue in mathematics restrict their earnings potential."

Amy Levin

The researchers say that, given the right climate, women are as capable as men in mathematics. At NIU, for instance, 20 percent of the females who completed Calculus I between 1995 and 1999 earned As, as opposed to 15.5 percent of males who completed the course.

Past research also has identified Calculus I as a falling-off point for women, Steele said. She cited a national study indicating as few as 5 percent of the women who took Calculus I went on to take more college mathematics courses.

"Mathematics has become the filter for higher paying jobs," Steele added, noting that women are poorly represented in careers requiring sophisticated mathematical knowledge, such as engineering, information technology and computer science. "So it has become a national focus to get women interested in math."

The social-norms campaign will feature advertisements in NIU's student newspaper demonstrating that women are as capable as men in mathematics and encouraging females to enroll in high-level math courses. Over a six-year period, a similar social-norms campaign to change alcohol-related perceptions reduced dangerous drinking among NIU students by 35 percent.

"The whole point of the social-norms model is to dispel misperceptions," said Michael Haines, director of the National Social Norms Research Center at NIU. "We do this by demonstrating that often what most people believe to be true is incorrect. In this case, a social-norms campaign will demonstrate females' proficiency in math."

Both the social-norms campaign and the special calculus course (with up to 30 students) will begin in fall 2001. The calculus course also will be offered the following fall.

The course will incorporate research on women's learning in mathematics. Professors will emphasize collaborative problem solving, de-emphasize competition, relate calculus to real life, require students to write about how they approach problems and make use of mentors and support groups. Students will be encouraged to attend presentations by professional women who use math in their careers.

"Women do not like to learn in competitive situations; they like collaboration," Steele said. "And they like to talk through and verbalize problems, rather than being left alone to solve them. It will be important for the instructor to do a lot of listening."

The same set of students also will be enrolled in an extended version of University 101, a campus orientation course. By pairing the two courses, researchers hope to create a support network of peers. Research has shown that women who don't find peer support for taking math often change their majors.

Steele said male students could benefit from classroom and support interventions, but noted that research indicates the learning environment is of particular importance for women. "Women come to the university system not understanding how important mathematics is to their careers," she said.

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