Sunday at the FIE

So I’m at the Frontiers in Education conference, and there’s so much good stuff going on my brain is on overload. Plus, there are other people here who call themselves feminist engineers! It was worth the price of admission just to be in their company. And there are men who are giving papers talking about gender! White male engineers talking about race! Where has this conference been all my life?!?!?! Seriously, I can’t believe I never went to this conference before. It totally rocks.
Also I met Bill Scher, blogger at Liberal Oasis, and author of Wait! Don’t Move to Canada! A Stay and Fight Strategy To Win Back America. He’s a very cool dude. You ought to read his book.
I will have to give you a fuller conference report when I return home, but for now, here’s a bit about one of the talks this morning I found very interesting.

Aura Paloheimo and Jenni Stenman of the Helsinki University of Technology presented Gender, Communication and Comfort Level in Higher Level Computer Science Education – Case Study. They observed communication during computer training sessions in all male, all female, and male/female student groups. Students filled out surveys that measured number of completed exercises and level of experienced difficulty. In all female groups, students spontaneously asked questions of each other, of the instructor, and formed pairs and small groups to help each other complete work. In mixed groups (majority female) students also spontaneously asked questions of the instructor; female students asked questions of other students. In all male groups and majority male groups, few or no questions were asked of the instructor or student-to-student.
For women students, being in the majority (all female) had a positive effect on performance; all women performed well when this was the case. In other situations, women split into two groups, one which performed comparably to the all-female group and the other which performed more poorly. In all cases, the women assessed themselves as having difficulty with the exercises. The men in all situations split into two groups, one of which performed more poorly than the other, yet all the men assessed themselves as having no difficulty with the training exercises.
The results with the females seem suggestive of stereotype threat (I’ll have to add links for this later; I know Dr. Free-Ride has discussed this recently over at Adventures in Ethics and Science.)
But the most interesting result from the study, for me, is this. The typical class composition that obtains in computer science and IT classrooms is majority male; but this is precisely the classroom composition that was shown in the study to inhibit student questioning, whether of the instructor or student-to-student. The authors conclude:

The study clearly reveals that in computer science classes typical gender distribution (majority male) lowers the comfort level of all students and the performance of weak male students in comparison to a case with an even gender distribution. Noteworthy is that this typical unbalanced gender distribution discourages especially the male students from asking questions from the assistant and conversing with peers both on and off topic, which leads to the underachievements of the weaker students.

It’s a nice piece of evidence for the educational benefits of diversity.
I also very much liked Alice Pawley’s Work-In-Progress talk on Engineering Faculty Members’ Descriptions of the Boundaries of Engineering. Pawley (University of Wisconsin-Madison) has applied research on boundaries from science and technology studies and women’s studies to understand how precedent and time constraints affect the way engineering faculty make decisions about “what counts as engineering, how they understand and interact with the boundaries of their field, and how their daily research and teaching actions may result in the perpetuation of a gendered discipline.” Faculty members described a process of course creation dependent upon what other faculty members have already taught, existing textbooks, and what they learned in similar courses (precedent); similar types of precendents applied for research decisions. I think the time constraints on faculty don’t need a lot of elaboration, except to say here that there is little time to spare for questions of what lies outside the current boundaries and whether the boundaries need to be re-examined.
Pawley notes:

This respect for the patterns laid down by research or teaching that has come before one’s own, combined with the almost paralyzing lack of time that faculty members face, lays down a path of following existing boundaries that extends backwards potentially for decades. If these boundaries were historically formed at a time when women’s work was conceived as fundamentally different than men’s work, and engineering was defined through the context attributed to the men’s work, it seems possible that contemporary faculty members lack the time to re-envision them even though such distinctions now seem anachronistic.

I look forward to hearing more from Pawley in the future as this project nears completion.

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