As national attention focuses on the
relative lack of women pursuing science, technology, engineering and
mathematics (STEM) studies and careers, a University of Delaware
researcher is looking into a surprising potential culprit — the widely
used teaching method known as problem-based learning, or PBL.
“PBL is popular in STEM domains, and there are a lot of studies that
show it can be very effective,” said Chad Forbes, a social
neuroscientist and assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences
at UD, who recently received a $1.8 million federal grant to study the
issue. “But we also know that there’s this ‘leaky pipeline,’ with girls
and women beginning to lose interest in STEM as early as middle school
and continuing through high school and college.”
That decision by many women not to continue an earlier interest in
STEM causes them to drop out of the “pipeline” that normally leads
students from secondary school to college, graduate school and careers
in a particular field.
Forbes has conducted previous research on “stereotype threat,” a term
describing how, for example, women tend to do worse on math tests if
they are reminded of their gender before taking the test. Psychology
researchers believe this occurs because they are influenced by the
stereotype that women aren’t good at math.
In addition, Forbes said, there’s a phenomenon known as “affective
contagion,” in which someone’s emotional state influences others.
“This means that you sometimes ‘catch’ someone else’s emotional
experiences,” he said. “If you’re in a good mood, and a friend who is
unhappy or anxious starts talking to you, you may start to feel that
way. And it can happen with strangers, too.”
Because a hallmark of PBL involves students working in pairs or
groups to solve real-world problems, Forbes got to thinking about what
this might mean to women, especially in a class where they are far
outnumbered by male students.
He wondered: Could the process of working in a predominantly male
group cause a woman to experience stereotype threat, making her feel
stress and anxiety and, possibly, unwittingly transmitting that to other
female students? Women who experience those feelings of stress and
anxiety could associate them with the STEM discipline itself and begin
to avoid such classes.
“There’s clearly something insidious and subtle — it may not even be
apparent — that goes on and influences women to leave STEM fields,”
Forbes said. “There are societal factors that create negative
stereotypes and influence women, but there are also individual factors,
such as stress and anxiety and feeling bad about your own competence.
“Maybe PBL isn’t a factor, but there are ways in which it might be, and there really has been no research into this question.”