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AAUW 46 In a follow-up study Correll (2004) tested her theory that boys assess their abilities higher and express higher aspirations to pursue a career in areas considered to be male domains in an experimental setting. She conducted this experiment to show that cultural beliefs about gender, not actual gender differences, influence self-assessments about math. The previous study relied on the assumption that the students in the sample were aware of the cultural beliefs about gender and mathematical abilities, and this awareness caused the observed gender differences in self-assessments of competence. Since Correll could not isolate and manipulate students’ exposure to gender beliefs associated with these abilities in that study, however, she could not be sure that cultural beliefs about gender caused the difference in selfassessment and not, for example, some additional component of “real” mathematical ability not captured by math grades and test scores. To account for this possibility, Correll designed an experiment around a fictitious skill called “contrast sensitivity ability.” In this experiment, participants were given evidence that contrast sensitivity ability (the ability to detect proportions of how much black and white appeared on a screen) was either an ability that men were more likely to have (male advantage or “MA” condition) or an ability that showed no gender difference (gender dissociated or “GD” condition).
Participants completed two 20-item rounds of a computer-administered contrast-sensitivity test in which subjects had five seconds to judge which color (black or white) predominated in each of a series of rectangles. Unbeknownst to the subjects, the amount of white and black was either exactly equal or very close to equal in each rectangle, so the test had no right or wrong answers. Nonetheless, all subjects were told that they had correctly answered 13 of the 20 items during round one and 12 of 20 in round two. Participants were then asked to assess their performance and indicate their interest in pursuing a career requiring contrastsensitivity ability.
In the MA group, men assessed their contrast-sensitivity ability and their interest in pursuing careers requiring this ability higher than women did, even though all participants received identical scores on the tests. Because the test had no right answers, men could not really be better at the contrast-sensitivity task; yet when told that men excelled at this ability, they assessed their own abilities higher than women assessed their own abilities and expressed more interest than women did in using this ability in a future career. When Correll controlled for level of self-assessment, a gender difference no longer existed in aspirations for a career requiring high contrast-sensitivity ability, which suggests that higher self-assessment among the men led them to express more interest than women did in using this ability in a future career. In the GD group, where the fictitious skill was described as equally likely to be held by
Correll’s findings suggest that the mere fact that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are commonly considered to be masculine domains may increase men’s self-assessment of their abilities and interest and lower women’s self-assessment and interest in pursuing careers in these areas. Additionally, the research indicates that women believe that they must achieve at exceptionally high levels in math and science to be successful STEM professionals.
If women hold themselves to a higher standard than men do, fewer women than men of equal ability will assess themselves as being good at math and science and aspire to science and engineering careers.
Fortunately, the findings also suggest that it is possible to alter the standards individuals use by altering the beliefs in their local environments. In the study, none of the participants had ever heard about contrast-sensitivity ability, so no one had preconceived ideas about it.
Correll’s research shows that the environment and culture around girls influences their selfassessment, so her recommendations for change focus on changing the environment. As
Correll explained in an interview with AAUW:
Research shows a number of direct, immediate ways to help girls better assess their math
• S c ho ols, depar t ments, and workplaces c an cult ivate a cult ure of resp ect.
Correll’s research shows that people respond not so much to widely held stereotypes in the larger culture but to the stereotypes that are operating in their immediate environment. When institutions (including K–12 schools, universities, and workplaces) and individuals send the message that girls and boys are equally capable of achieving in math and science, girls are more likely to assess their abilities more accurately. Since schools are responsible for educating, they have a unique opportunity to help students learn new ways to interact. By teaching students to recognize stereotypes, teachers can cultivate a culture of respect in their classrooms.
One of the most persistent gender gaps in cognitive skills is found in the area of spatial skills, specifically on measures of mental rotation, where researchers consistently find that men outscore women by a medium to large margin (Linn & Petersen, 1985; Voyer et al., 1995).
While no definitive evidence proves that strong spatial abilities are required for achievement in STEM careers (Ceci et al., 2009), many people, including science and engineering professors, view them as important for success in fields like engineering and classes like organic chemistry. The National Academy of Sciences states that “spatial thinking is at the heart of many great discoveries in science, that it underpins many of the activities of the modern workforce, and that it pervades the everyday activities of modern life” (National Research Council, Committee on Support for Thinking Spatially, 2006, p.1).
Sheryl Sorby, a professor of mechanical engineering and engineering mechanics at Michigan Technological University, has studied the role of spatial-skills training in the retention of female students in engineering since the early 1990s. She finds that individuals can dramatically improve their 3-D spatial-visualization skills within a short time with training, and female engineering students with poorly developed spatial skills who receive spatialvisualization training are more likely to stay in engineering than are their peers who do not receive training.
Sorby became interested in the topic of spatial skills through her personal difficulty with spatial tasks as an engineering student. In an interview with AAUW, Sorby described her
Sheryl Sorby is a professor of mechanical engineering and engineering mechanics and director of the engineering education and innovation research group at Michigan Technological University. Her research interests include graphics and visualization. She serves as an associate editor of the American Society for Engineering Education’s new online journal, Advances in Engineering Education.
AAUW 52 that I couldn’t do something in an academic setting. I was really frustrated, and I worked harder on that class than I did on my calculus and my chemistry classes combined.
A few years later, when Sorby was working on a doctorate in engineering, she found herself teaching the same course that she had struggled with: “While I was teaching this class, it seemed anecdotally to me that a lot of young women had the same issues with this class that I had had. They just struggled, they didn’t know what they were doing, they were frustrated, and I had a number of them tell me: ‘I’m leaving engineering because I can’t do this. I really shouldn’t be here.’ ” After she earned a doctorate in engineering mechanics in the early 1990s, Sorby connected with Beverly Baartmans, a math educator at Michigan Tech, who introduced her to research on gender differences in spatial cognition, and Sorby began to understand her own and her students’ challenges with spatial visualization in a new way. As a result, Sorby and Baartmans formulated the following research question: If spatial skills are critical to success in engineering graphics, and graphics is one of the first engineering courses that students take, and women’s spatial skills lag behind those of their male counterparts, will women become discouraged in this introductory course at a disproportionate rate and drop out of engineering as a result?
To answer this question, Sorby and Baartmans, with funding from the National Science Foundation, developed a course in spatial visualization for first-year engineering students who had poorly developed spatial skills. The researchers’ intention was to increase the retention of women in engineering through this course, which focused on teaching basic spatial-visualization skills, including isometric and orthographic sketching, rotation and reflection of objects, and cross sections of solids.
In one of their first studies in 1993, Sorby and Baartmans administered the Purdue Spatial Visualization Test: Rotations (PSVT:R) (Guay, 1977) along with a background questionnaire to 535 first-year Michigan Tech engineering students during orientation. An example from the PSVT:R is shown in figure 18. Sorby’s analysis of the results of the test and the background questionnaire showed that previous experience in design-related courses such as drafting, mechanical drawing, and art, as well as play as children with construction toys such as Legos, Lincoln Logs, and Erector Sets, predicted good performance on the PSVT:R. Another factor that predicted success was being a man. Women were more than three times as likely as their male peers to fail the test, with 39 percent of the women failing the test compared with 12 percent of the men (Sorby & Baartmans, 2000).
Note: The correct answer is D.
Source: Guay, R., 1977, Purdue Spatial Visualization Test: Rotations ( West Lafayette, IN: Purdue Research Foundation), reproduced in Sorby, S. A., 2009, "Educational research in developing 3-D spatial skills for engineering students," International Journal of Science Education, 31(3), p. 463.
i M P r o v i n G S PAT i A l S k i l l S
Sorby then selected a random sample of 24 students (11 women and 13 men) who failed the PSVT:R test to participate in the pilot offering of the spatial-visualization course. During a 10-week period, these students took a three-credit course that included two hours of lecture and a two-hour computer lab each week. Lectures covered topics such as cross sections of solids, sketching multiview drawings of simple objects, and paper folding to illustrate 2-D to 3-D transformations. In the lab, students used solid-modeling computer-aided design (CAD) software to illustrate the principles presented during the lectures. At the end of the course, students took the PSVT:R again. The results were remarkable. Students’ test scores improved from an average score of 52 percent on the PSVT:R before taking the class to 82 percent after taking it. This is approximately 10 times the improvement that would be expected of someone taking the PSVT:R a second time with no training (ibid.) and three to four times the improvement that Sorby had seen among her students as a result of taking an engineeringgraphics or computer-design course. Sorby is quick to point out that her course does not help people become perfect at spatial visualization; rather, the training brings students’ scores up to the average score for all engineering students. This finding is particularly relevant for women
Sorby and her colleagues continued to offer this course through 1999 to engineering freshmen who failed the PSVT:R. Each year, students’ scores on the PSVT:R increased by 20 to 32 percentage points on average after taking the course. In 2000 Sorby condensed the training into a one-credit course that met once each week for 14 weeks for a two-hour lab session. She found similar results: students’ PSVT:R scores increased 26 percentage points on average after the training among the 186 students who took the course between 2000 and 2002 (Sorby, 2009).
In 2004 and 2005 Sorby conducted a study with nonengineering first-year students at Michigan Tech and pilot studies with high school and middle school students and in each case found that students’ spatial scores improved with training. Other universities, such as Virginia Tech and Purdue, are now offering the spatial-visualization course, and the National Science Foundation has funded the Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN) to make the course available to students at 30 additional universities by 2014. Sorby, along with Baartmans and Anne Wysocki, published a multimedia software-workbook package, Introduction to 3D Spatial Visualization, in 2003, which contains content similar to the course and is available to the general public to guide anyone interested in improving her or his 3-D spatial visualization skills.
Sorby has produced striking findings on spatial skills and retention of female engineering students. She found that among the women who initially failed the PSVT:R and took the spatial-visualization course between 1993 and 1998, 77 percent (69 out of 90) were still enrolled in or had graduated from the school of engineering. In comparison only 48 percent (77 out of 161) of the women who initially failed the PSVT:R and did not take Sorby’s course were still enrolled or had graduated from the school of engineering.