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Research: STEM Efforts for Females Poorly Measured

Even though multiple federal programs are funding projects to promote the idea of preparing more girls and women for advanced study and careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), much of the impact of that investment can't be measured because the recipients don't know how to score efforts in this area consistently. That inconsistency, in turn, could prevent the most effective approaches from being adopted more broadly.

That's the conclusion of a study by the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity (NAPE), a non-profit consortium of public and private organizations. NAPE works on efforts to diversify the workforce and increase opportunities for non-traditional workers in high-skill, high-wage careers. The goal for its recent research was to assist the United States Department of Education in its review of its competitive grants programs.

In particular, the study examined how well states were using funds from the federal Race to the Top initiative to prepare underrepresented students for work in science, technology, engineering, and math areas. To meet the requirements for using these funds, the states must have a plan that, among other components, prepares more people for STEM areas, especially among underrepresented groups such as female students.

NAPE's report, "False Start: A Missed Opportunity for Women and Girls in STEM in the Race to the Top Awards," concluded that states generally had a poor understanding of the requirements for developing a high-quality STEM plan addressing the needs of women and girls.

As the report stated, programs designed to woo all students to STEM don't necessarily work for subsets. "It is well known that programs that use fundamentals to target students from underrepresented groups work for all students. However, the opposite, that is, that programs designed for the majority of students also work for underrepresented groups, does not necessarily hold true."

"When the Race to the Top application was released by the U.S. Department of Education, we were ecstatic that this Administration had chosen to include a priority focused on women and girls in STEM--a policy that we consider necessary and important to create the next generation of innovators in the U.S. economy," said Mimi Lufkin, CEO of NAPE.

Lufkin noted that applications ranged from not addressing the criterion to describing programs that are showing impressive results.

"Reviewers differed in their interpretation of the degree to which a state had to prove its capacity to increase the access and success of underrepresented students in STEM. Therefore, varying opinions about the adequacy, or even the necessity, of addressing the requirements may have affected the scoring."

As a result of the research, NAPE has come up with several recommendations for the Department of Education, including these:

  1. To provide clear instructions for reviewers about how to score applications and do so without bias.
  2. To remind reviewers that the applicant must satisfy all criteria to earn points.
  3. To use current research in laying out the types of programs reviewers should be looking for when it comes to underrepresented groups.
  4. To select reviewers who have experience specifically in the area of underrepresented groups in STEM.

NAPE also recommended that the department continue pinning future funding on making STEM access for girls and women a priority.

"There are fantastic programs all around this country that have proven to be effective in engaging women and girls in STEM education and careers. States need to take advantage of this expertise and include them in their Race to the Top implementation efforts--it's not too late!" Lufkin concluded.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.