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Chad Forbes conducts research on "stereotype threat," a phenomenon in which women, for example, might do worse on a math test if they are reminded of gender stereotypes.
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 theres 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 arent good at math.
In addition, Forbes said, theres a phenomenon known as affective
contagion, in which someones emotional state influences others.
This means that you sometimes catch someone elses emotional
experiences, he said. If youre 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.
Theres 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 isnt a factor, but there are ways in which it might be, and there really has been no research into this question.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
A hallmark of problem-based learning involves students working in small teams to solve problems. In some STEM classes, women may be far outnumbered by male students.
His research, conducted with colleague Tessa West of New York
University, has already studied some stereotype-threat effects that
occur when students are paired in a psychology lab and asked to work
together on a math test. A woman under stereotype threat performs worse
on the test when she works with a male student and better when she works
with another woman.
But, Forbes said, the surprising finding was that the woman not under
stereotype threat performed worse when paired with the
stereotype-threat woman, who often asked her partner questions and
sought her help. He believes that demonstrates that serving as a mentor
is cognitively taxing, leaving the mentor less able to solve problems
Do these findings mean that women should work only with other women
in STEM classes and labs? Probably not, Forbes said. A lot of evidence
suggests that girls and women respond well to all-female STEM classes,
he said, but they eventually will have to work with men.
There are a lot of other possible solutions rather than
gender-segregated classes, he said. Just educating girls, letting them
know about stereotype threat and what it means, might help them guard
against it. That sounds basic, but it can make a difference.
If PBL turns out to have negative effects on some female students,
Forbes suggested that teachers could use that information to help
organize their student teams in a way that minimizes the effect. For
example, they could avoid putting a female student who is sensitive to
stereotype threat on a team with a particularly assertive or negative
About the grant
The National Science Foundation awarded the $1.8 million grant to
Forbes, principal investigator, and West, co-principal investigator,
through its Research on Gender in Science and Engineering program.
The research is estimated to take about four years, with the grant extending until about September 2019.
For the laboratory studies, looking at pairs of students working
together to solve math problems, Forbes lab at UD focuses on the
research participants brain patterns, while West at NYU focuses on
their cardiovascular responses.
The researchers also plan to work with a group of students who have
selected a high school STEM track at Newark (Delaware) Charter School.
The school employs PBL in many of its classes, and Forbes said he hopes
to follow the students over time in their classrooms and in his lab
as they continue in STEM classes or decide to choose a different