To Shrink the Gender Gap in STEM, Start with Girls’ Math Identity

May 19, 2020

Sophia Santillan's Bass Connections project engages both middle schoolers and undergrads 

From Duke Bass Connections

Bass Connections Summer 2019 - Girls Excelling in Math

Team leaders and undergraduate team members with middle school participants visiting Dr. Jiji Abdelgadir (a Duke neurosurgery resident) during a Summer 2019 workshop.

Many young girls love math and excel at it, but at a critical point in their development, stereotypes and cultural norms can dampen girls’ interest in math and other STEM subjects.

Sophia Santillan was able to maintain her own love of STEM and is now assistant professor of the practice in Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science. A three-time Duke alumna (PhD, MS and BS) and an experienced STEM teacher across levels, she is interested in the effect of emerging technology and research on student learning and classroom practice.

Since Fall 2018 she has collaborated with Victoria Akin (Math) and Lauren Valentino (Sociology) to lead a Bass Connections project team called Spatial Reasoning and Problem-based Learning to Improve Girls’ Math Identity.

“Math identity is the way that a student feels about math and the way they feel about themselves as mathematicians,” Santillan said. “Our research goals are to understand what middle school girls and female-identifying undergraduates think about their role in STEM and their own identity as STEM researchers and mathematicians.”

Three middle school girls working a math problemIn the fall, the 2019-2020 Duke student team members learned about the causes of the gender gap in STEM, what the landscape looks like for women today, how to teach math and how to work with middle schoolers. This background prepared them for the spring, when the team invited middle school girls from Durham Public Schools to come to Duke’s campus and participate in weekend workshops.

“We do a lot of fun, hands-on math problems and have age-appropriate discussions about gender, especially as it relates to STEM,” Santillan explained. “What’s been surprising is how much engagement we’ve seen from the undergrads – how much they’re sharing their own experiences in the classroom, talking about what it’s been like to be women in STEM, but also finding the things we all have in common that led us to be in that room in the first place. It has been really interesting and rewarding.”

Check out the team’s year-end profile in the Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Virtual Showcase, view the team’s poster to learn about their research and find out about this project team's plans for 2020-2021.


Remarks: Sophia Santillan

Sophia Santillan

Assistant Professor of the Practice, Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science

Bass Connections Project Team: Spatial Reasoning and Problem-based Learning to Improve Girls’ Math Identity

Sophia Santillan has led Bass Connections project teams since 2018. A three-time Duke alumna (PhD, MS and BS) and an experienced STEM teacher across levels, she is interested in the effect of emerging technology and research on student learning and classroom practice.

Below are excerpts from Santillan’s remarks at a Spring 2020 Bass Connections orientation for team leaders.

Supporting Girls in STEM

This project is about girls and their math identity. Math identity is the way that a student feels about math and the way they feel about themselves as mathematicians. Our team is working with middle school girls and female-identifying undergraduates to understand how they feel about math and how to support them as mathematicians. Our research goals are to understand what exactly these students think about their role in STEM and their own identity as STEM researchers and mathematicians. 

In the fall semester, we have an undergraduate course where we talk about the causes of the gender gap in STEM and what the landscape looks like for women today in STEM fields. We also talk about teaching math and how to work with middle schoolers.

Community and Student Engagement

Everything we teach in the fall is training for the spring when we invite middle school girls from Durham Public Schools to come to campus on weekends to participate in our team’s workshops. During these workshops, we do a lot of fun, hands-on math problems and have age-appropriate discussions about gender, especially as it relates to STEM. In the summer, we hold longer workshops with more hands-on math and we take the girls on field trips to women’s labs at Duke to give them exposure to seeing women in STEM fields and environments.

What’s been surprising is how much engagement we’ve seen from the undergrads – how much they’re sharing their own experiences in the classroom, talking about what it’s been like to be women in STEM, but also finding the things we all have in common that led us to be in that room in the first place. It has been really interesting and rewarding.

Structuring a Diverse Team

Our team is made up of three team leaders. I am in Mechanical Engineering; Lauren Valentino is in Sociology; and Victoria Akin is in Math. We also have two professors in Psychology and Neuroscience who are team contributors who talk to us about the cognitive differences between men and women and the cognitive development of adolescents. These collaborators have been guiding us in thinking about where the middle schoolers are developmentally and in understanding relevant research.

Each year we have also had one graduate student on our team. This year, our graduate student has an undergraduate degree in Engineering but now she is getting her Ph.D. in Sociology, so she is helping us look at the data from our surveys. We have eight female STEM-major undergrads and one project manager. 

Lessons Learned

Set up one-on-one meetings with each student to see how they are doing

We have learned many things as we have led this team over the past two years. For example, we have one-on-one meetings with our students to check-in and see how they are doing. The meetings do not necessarily have to be regular, even once per semester just to check in with the students and see how they are feeling about the work. 

Try to organize some team bonding events outside of the regular team meetings

One thing students said in these meetings that was helpful is that once the spring semester workshops started and we transitioned out of a classroom format, they missed having our more connected undergrad meetings. So, in order to get our whole team back together, we had a team dinner, and it was just a really great team bonding experience. We are already planning our team dinner for the spring. 

Consider recruiting team members from students you already know

As far as recruiting goes, I would definitely advise recruiting students that you know. Both years we have had people that none of the team leaders knew and these students were great, but the large majority of the applicants we get were people that we already knew and people we could already vouch for who we could reach out to and say, “Hey, we think you’d be great for this opportunity.”