Original news release was issued by the Colorado State University, written by Katie Courage.
While many students struggle with math on the way to their STEM degrees, latest research shows that women are much more likely to get discouraged by the major hurdle – Calculus I. And the issue isn’t knowledge or skill, but a severe lack of confidence.
The gender gap in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math) is well known and broadly discussed, and many initiatives are already under way aiming to bring in and retain more women. According to a National Science Foundation (NSF) report on North American students, even though women earn half of STEM doctorates, the ratio starts favoring men very quickly afterwards. Women represent only 21% of full professors in science and 5% in engineering. Outside of faculty positions, women represent only 25% of the STEM work force.
Clearly, there is a major drop-off in the number of women in science between the graduate and senior level. The NSF study cites lack of positive role models and mentors, subtle gender-biases, and the desire to balance family and work demands as the main reasons behind this gender gap. We can now add a very specific culprit to that list, as researchers from the Colorado State University have found that Calculus I appears to discourage one and a half times more women than men from pursuing their science degrees.
Both men and women experience a loss of confidence in their math skills at a similar rate in Calc I, says co-author Jess Ellis, an assistant professor of mathematics in the College of Natural Sciences. The problem, says co-author Bailey Fosdick, an assistant professor of statistics, is that women arrive with lower math confidence to begin with.
“When women are leaving, it is because they don’t think they can do it” – not because they can’t do it – she says.
In the study, students across North America were asked about their interest in and intention to pursue a STEM degree, their test scores, preparation, learning experience, plans and backgrounds – before taking Calculus I and after. A student was considered to “persist” in the STEM track if they went on to take Calculus II.
The more time Ellis spent with the data, she says, “it seemed like there was a big issue with gender – it just kind of jumped out.”
Of the students who switched out after Calculus I, when asked why they decided against taking Calculus II, most of the possible explanations fell fairly equally across the genders (too many classes, not needed for major, etc.) – except for one: “I do not believe I understand the ideas of Calculus I well enough to take Calculus II.” Of those who had been planning to major in a STEM area, 14 percent of men who switched out listed this as a reason; 35 percent of women did. But fewer than one in five of the departing students of either gender reported that their Calc I grade was actually too low to continue.
The study reveals a lot of room for improvement and raises questions with regards to teaching methods, and an increased support of students with a very specific focus on Calculus I. After all, would there be anyone who wouldn’t benefit from a more robust structure in STEM fields?