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2014 June 20

Male- and female-dominated fields

In Percentage of Bachelor’s degrees conferred to women, by major (1970-2012), Randal S. Olson posted the following image:

History of gender balance in different fields in college.

History of gender balance in different fields in college.

He makes the point that there is no “STEM” gender gap. Indeed, the sciences and math are doing fine on gender balance. There are, however, large gender gaps in the engineering and computer science on one side and health professions, public administration, education, and psychology on the other. The post with this graph talks mainly about the computer science and engineering gender imbalance, which is somewhat larger than the gender imbalance on the other side (particularly if you take into account that about 60% of bachelor’s degrees now go to women).  He talks about the other side of the gender imbalance in The double-edged sword of gender equality, though without shedding much more light on the subject.

Computer science is a particularly strange case, as it has seen more fluctuation both in raw numbers of students (data not shown here) and gender balance than any other field. Other fields have seen large shifts in gender balance, but they have generally been gradual and nearly monotonic—not reversing course in the early 1980s.  It seems to me that the biggest drops in the ratio of women in CS came at times when the overall number of students in CS was dropping (like after the dot-com bubble burst in the 2000).  When CS grew, the number of women grew faster than the number of men.  When CS shrunk, the number of women shrunk faster than the men.  Perhaps if CS education had had a steady growth, rather than the boom-and-bust cycles that have plagued it since the late 1970s, it would not have had such a mysterious rise and fall in proportion of women in the field. The boom-and-bust cycles are not driven by the real need for CS degrees, but by media hype about relatively small shortages or excesses of personnel.  I believe that the demand for CS degrees has been stabler than the supply (unlike most other fields, where the supply has been steady even as demand has fluctuated).  Sorry, I don’t have statistics handy for that, and I’m too lazy to spend hours going through the government databases trying to match up labor market information with degree information.

Fixing the gender gaps so that most fields can draw from the full population will be difficult. Getting more men into the health professions and education could probably be solved fairly easily by paying more—and there is no societal need for more psych and public administration majors than are currently being produced. But, because CS is already a high-paying field for which there is more demand than supply, the difficulty of getting more women to choose and complete the major is a societal problem that seems difficult to address.

Some people have suggested that eliminating H1B visas for importing temporary CS workers (who are predominantly male) might help.  I don’t think that the number of H1B visas is large enough to make that big a difference, though I support replacing the H1B visas with green cards.  If there aren’t enough American workers in a field, we should import the workers on a permanent basis, not with a temporary indentured-servitude system that just serves to export the technical expertise when the workers are sent home.

Some people have suggested that a big part of the problem is the disrespect women are treated with in some workplaces—which would help explain the “leaky pipeline” phenomenon, but not why female high-school and college students are not entering the field. Student choices in high school and college are shaped much more by peer pressure and mass media than by anything about the future workplaces—so the problem is one of changing the culture in high schools and colleges—a difficult task.  There has been some success at some smaller schools (like Harvey Mudd), but a large part of that has come from aggressive admissions policies that aim for gender balance in the field at admissions time—a route not open to public schools, who can’t apply large differences in admissions based on gender.

I’m currently in charge of a bioengineering program, whose graduating class was about 36% female (13/36), and a bioinformatics program that is so small that statistics are pretty meaningless (only 2 graduates a year, both male this year). I would like to see the number of women in majors increase, particularly in the concentrations that lead to higher paying jobs (the concentrations that are further from MCD biology).  We get a few students switching to the bioengineering from MCD biology, but not many, as those students don’t take the rigorous math and physics needed for the bioengineering degree—we really have to get our students in the first year.  I’m still trying to find ways to reach those students who would be good engineers, but don’t realize it until too late.

 

2014 May 21

Establishing the habit of writing

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:19
Tags: , , ,

In Preparing for AP Physics 1: establishing the habit of writing Greg Jacobs writes

I’m in the infant stages of planning my AP Physics 1 course. The big trick is going to be establishing my students’ ability and willingness to write their reasoning, to get them to focus on communication rather than on getting a correct numerical answer. Once it’s clear that they are not taking a math course—once they see that the solution to a problem looks much more like what they’ve done in biology or economics than in calculus—I think the students will be able to move along quickly and enthusiastically through the material.

Students must get comfortable with calculation. However—as was correctly pointed out to me at the AP consultant meeting in April—if we start the course with lots of pure calculation, students will think that getting the answer is the holy grail of physics problems. If instead we begin the course demanding description, explanation, and all sorts of prose, students may become accepting of the idea that a numerical answer is merely the result of careful reasoning.

If this change in AP Physics actually works (something I’m always skeptical about in any curriculum reform, particularly at the high school level), it may help engineering students in college. Engineers do far more writing than most professions, with far less training at doing it.

I don’t think that a prompt that just says “In a clear, coherent, paragraph-length explanation, describe how you would figure out …” is going to do the trick, though. If they could already write clear, coherent paragraphs about how they would figure something out, then they would not need the curriculum change—they might not even need a physics class at the level of Physics 1.

I’m struggling with this problem in my applied circuits course, in which I require weekly design reports for the circuits they design and build. The students are staying in lab until they finish the designs and demo them, so they are clearly capable of doing the work (though not always as quickly as they should). But only a few students can explain their computations for the design parameters (like gain, corner frequency, and component values) clearly—others put down any nonsense that has a few of the right buzzwords in it.

The top students have gotten better at their explanations as a result of feedback, but the bottom students are still often producing word salad. Although there is some indication of a general writing problem (lack of topic sentences, poor grammar, and misused vocabulary), the problem is most pronounced when they are trying to explain how they selected component values. The more steps that there are in the underlying math, the more jumbled their explanations, even if the problem is just a chain of multiplications.

From time to time, I’ve suspected that the students don’t produce coherent sentences about how they computed something may not have actually done the computation, but “borrowed” the result.  This is not an explanation I believe in strongly, though, as the students have been (mostly) coming up with different solutions to the design tasks, so there isn’t simple copying going on. I’ve also seen the design process the students use, as they have been doing their pre-lab work in lab (instead of at home), so I hear them discussing the problems.  They do ask each other not just what answer they got, but how to get the answers, so they are trying to learn the method.

In looking at the pre-lab homeworks that were turned in on Monday I realized what part of the problem is—the students keep absolutely awful design notes. What the students turned in on Monday (even the top students) was mostly incomprehensible scribbling of numbers, with no indication where the numbers come from or what they were attempting to compute.  Half an hour after writing down the notes, I’m pretty sure that they could not reconstruct their reasoning—hence the often magical methods in their design reports, where they copy numbers out of their notes (some of which are correct), but can’t put together a coherent chain of reasoning that leads to those numbers. On the long multi-step computations needed to figure out what gain an amplifier needs, they can usually do each step (though often needing coaching on one or two of the steps, either by me or by one of the better students in the course), but they don’t record the meaning of each step or even what the sequence of steps is, and the “answer-getting” mentality causes them to flush the process from their minds as soon as they have a number.

I’ve seen a lot of lab exercises for other courses that try to scaffold the process by providing worksheets that give the step-by-step process and have the students fill it out as they go along. I don’t think that this is helpful though, as it encourages students to solve one step at a time and then forget about it—the scaffold prevents the students from exercising the very skill that I most need them to learn. Showing them worked examples, as I have done in class, doesn’t seem to help much either—they can follow along as I break the problem down with them, and think they understand, but then not be able to do the same thing themselves.  Again, the scaffolding prevents them from exercising the skill I most need them to learn—identifying problems and them into subproblems.

For next year, I’m probably going to have to come up with some exercises which get students to organize their thoughts external to their heads. So far, the only thing I’ve thought of is to have them create a fill-in-the-blank worksheet for each lab (like an income tax form), and turn in the blank worksheet and try filling out each other’s worksheets.  If they get in the habit of writing down the steps as steps, it may help them be able to reconstruct their work when they convert it into full sentences for the final reports. It may be too late for me to do anything formal this year (only 2.5 weeks left), but I’ll suggest it to the students anyway.

The advice I’d give to Greg Jacobs is to leave the “clear, coherent paragraph” until later in the quarter—get them to create worksheets first.

I’d welcome any suggestions from my blog readers on ways that I can get students to learn to organize their thoughts in a way that they can present them coherently to others. Block diagrams alone don’t seem to be enough, and vague things like “mind maps” are likely to do more harm than good.

2014 April 20

Designing courses to teach design—draft 4

Today I tried practicing my talk for Wednesday with my son as an audience (I figured I could get some useful feedback from him based on his years of theater experience). He asked me a number of good questions about my audience and what effect I wanted to have on them (the same sort of questions I ask my students, but often have difficulty applying myself). He gave me some good advice about changing the tone of my talk, making it more conversational and less lecturing.  (I’m good at that in my usual improvisational lecture style, but I know that I couldn’t keep to time if I tried to be extemporaneous with this material.)

After getting his suggestions, I rewrote the talk and delivered it to him again.  It runs about 9 minutes, and my target is “under 10 minutes”, so I think the length is about right. I welcome suggestions from my readers also—the talk isn’t until Wednesday, so I may have time to make more revisions.

Because of the time constraints, I’m going to read my talk—something I’ve never done before, so forgive me if the presentation is a bit awkward.

I want to talk to you today about two courses I created in the past two years. These courses were in part a reaction against the University pressure to create MOOCs. University education is not supposed to be mega-lecture courses, but students getting detailed feedback on their work from experts.

The courses I’m talking about are not easy, cheap fixes (like was claimed for MOOCs)—they are high-contact, hands-on courses, which take a lot of time to create and teach, and so are expensive to offer.

Designing the courses started from goals and constraints: “what problem was I trying to solve?” and “what resources were available?”

The two problems I was trying to solve were in the bioengineering curriculum:

  • students weren’t getting enough engineering design practice (and that mostly in the senior year, which is much too late) and
  • too many students were selecting the biomolecular concentration, where we were exceeding our capacity for senior capstone and senior thesis projects.  The other concentrations were under-enrolled.

The main constraints were that

  • there was no room in the curriculum for adding more required courses,
  • there were no resources for new lab space or equipment, and
  • all existing engineering design courses had huge prerequisite chains.

Because I couldn’t ask someone else to create and teach a new course, the content had to be something I already knew or could learn quickly. So, no wet labs!

The first course I’ll talk about is a replacement for the previously required EE 101 circuits course. The EE course is a theory class that prepares students to do design in later courses—but most bioengineering students never take those later courses, so were getting prepared for something they didn’t do. (That’s a general problem in the bioengineering program—“creeping prerequistism” in the 8 or 9 departments providing courses results in the students always preparing to do stuff, and not getting to the doing until senior year.)

The goal of the new Applied Circuits for Bioengineers course is to have students design and build simple amplifiers to interface biosensors to computers. We work with a range of sensors from easy ones like thermistors, microphones, and phototransistors to more difficult ones like EKG electrodes and strain-gauge pressure sensors.

The goal is for students to do design in every lab, even the first one where they know almost no electronics, and to write detailed design reports on each lab—not fill-in-the-blank worksheets, like they get in other intro labs.

The course was designed around the weekly design projects, not around topics that must be covered. Themes emerged only after the design projects were selected—the class comes back again and again to variations on voltage dividers, complex impedance, and op amps with negative feedback.

There wasn’t a textbook available that covered things the way I wanted, so the students use free online materials instead. The savings on textbooks is used to justify a lab fee of  about $130 for tools and parts. They don’t get just a few parts, but 20 each of 64 different sizes of resistors and 10 each of 25 different sizes of capacitors, along with a microprocessor board and lots of other tools and parts. I don’t want their designs to be multiple-choice questions (“there are only 5 resistors in the kit—so one of them must be the right answer”).

Coming up with usable design exercises was hard—I tried lots of them at home, rejecting some as too hard, some as too easy, and tweaking others until they seemed feasible. I even designed three different custom printed circuit boards for the course: a board for pressure sensors, a hysteresis oscillator for soldering practice, and a prototyping board for their two instrumentation-amplifier projects. (pass boards around)

By the way, PC board design has gotten very cheap—I used free tools for doing the design, and the boards themselves cost only 50¢ to $1—it would have cost thousands to have done custom boards like this when I was first hired at UCSC.

Developing a hands-on course like this is not quick—creating the course took me almost 6 months of full-time effort!—so we’re probably not going to see huge numbers of such courses being started. But they’re worth it!

To make it somewhat easier for someone who wants to create a similar course, I posted all my notes on designing the course on my blog—over 100 blog posts before class even started! There are now around 240 posts (the URL is on the quarter-page handout, along with the URL for the course syllabus and lab assignments).

The course was prototyped last year as BME 194+194F “Group Tutorial” before being submitted to CEP for approval. Incidentally, I highly recommend prototyping before submitting the paperwork for new courses—there were a lot of changes that came out of the prototype run. For example, the lab time was increased from 3 hours to 6 hours a week.

That change has a high cost—not only am I spending over 10 hours a week of direct classroom and lab time, but I’m spending every weekend this quarter rewriting all the lab handouts—splitting the material between the lab times and adding at-home or in-class design exercises between the two parts. Even with the extra lab time, some labs ran over this quarter, so I’ve got still more tweaking to do for next year.

It isn’t just the design of a new course that is expensive—each time the course is offered takes a lot of faculty time. In addition to the 10 hours a week of direct contact, I have office hours, grading, prep time for both labs and lectures, and rewriting the lab handouts.  If I have 2 lab sections next year, I’ll have 16 hours a week of direct contact. Just providing feedback on the 5–10-page weekly design reports takes about 15 minutes per student per week (half an hour per report).

But enough about the circuits course.

The other course I want to talk about is one I created last quarter: a new freshman design seminar in conjunction with the student Biomedical Engineering Society. This course has no prereqs, is only 2 units, and does not count towards any major or campus requirements (it might get a “Collaborative Endeavor” gen-ed code).
I’d not taught a freshman class in over a decade, having taught mainly seniors and grad students, so I had no idea what skills and interests the students would bring to the class. With no prereqs for the course, I couldn’t assume that students had any relevant skills, though it turned out that all this year’s students had had biology, chemistry, and at least conceptual physics in high school.

Because I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t choose the projects ahead of time, but tried to adapt the course on the fly to what the students could do and what they wanted to do.  (They wanted to do more than they could do in the time available, of course.)

I did try out three or four projects ahead of time, looking for design projects with a low entry barrier. But all the projects I tried assumed some computer programming skills, and only one student had ever done any computer programming—a big hole in California high school education.  Even more concerning for engineering majors is that only a few had any experience building anything. (AP physics classes were the most common exposure to building something.)

On the first-day survey the students indicated an interest in learning some programming and electronics, so we did a little programming with an Arduino microcontroller board—I’ll try to up that content next year, adding some more electronics.

The class started with generic design concepts using a photospectrometer as an example. The concepts include such basics as specifying design goals and constraints, dividing a problem into subproblems, interface specification, and iterative design. The photospectrometer turned out to be too complex and unfamiliar to students, and I’ll probably start with a simpler design (perhaps a colorimeter) next year, and have the students design, build, and program it before they start on their own projects.

One positive thing—the course had more women than men, and at the end of the course they indicated that the course had made them more likely to continue in engineering!

I could go on all afternoon about these courses, but I’m running out of time, so I’ll leave you with these take-away messages:

  • The value of University education is in doing things and getting detailed feedback from experts, not sitting in lectures.
  • Students should be solving real problems with multiple solutions, not fill-in-the-blank or multiple-choice toy exercises.
  • Hands-on courses require a lot of time from the professors, both to create and to run, and so they are expensive to offer.
  • Failure to teach such courses, though, makes a University education no longer worthy of the name.

UPDATE 2014 May 2: video available online (as a 784 Mbyte downloadable .mov file) from So you think your lecture course is better than a MOOC? April 23, 2014. I was the second of six speakers.

 

2014 April 13

Designing courses to teach design—draft 3

The talk I was scheduled to give last quarter (2014 Feb 24) was rescheduled, because two of the four speakers were unable to make that date.  It is now scheduled for Wed 2014 Apr 23  at 3:30 in the Merrill Cultural Center, which used to be the Merrill Dining Hall, before they consolidated dining halls in the east colleges. There are now 6 speakers in 90 minutes, which means 15 minutes each (maybe 10 minutes speaking, 5 minutes for questions).  I’ll have to run over from my class which ends at 3:10 on the opposite side of campus (0.6 miles, 13 minutes according to Google Maps), though running may be difficult along the crowded sidewalks between classes.

The talk needs to be updated from last quarter, as I have now taught prototype runs for both the applied circuits class and the freshman design class, and am in the second run of the applied circuits class.

Here is my current draft of the text—please give me some suggestions in the comments for improvement.  The ending seems particularly awkward to me, but I’m having trouble fixing it.

Designing Courses to Teach Design

I believe that the main value of a University education does not come from MOOCable mega-lecture courses, but from students working in their field and getting detailed feedback on that work. I’ll talk today about some courses I’ve created ths year and last to teach students to do engineering design. These courses are high-contact, hands-on courses—the antithesis of MOOC courses.

Design starts from goals and constraints: “what problem are you trying to solve?” and “what resources are available?” So what were my goals and constraints?

The two problems I was trying to solve were in the bioengineering curriculum:

  1. students weren’t getting enough engineering design practice (and what they were getting was mostly in the senior year, which is much too late) and
  2. too many students were selecting the biomolecular concentration, where we were exceeding our capacity for senior capstone and senior thesis projects.  The other concentrations were under-enrolled.

The main constraints were that

  1. there was no room in the curriculum for adding required courses,
  2. there were no resources for new lab space or equipment, and
  3. all relevant engineering courses had huge prerequisite chains.

Furthermore, I would have to teach any new course myself, so the content had to be something I already knew or could learn quickly. Those constraints meant the new course would not have wet labs (though I have encouraged wet-lab faculty to add design exercises to their existing courses).

My first partial solution was to replace the required EE circuits course with a new Applied Circuits course. The existing EE101 course is a theory class (mostly applied math) that prepares students to do design in later courses—but most bioengineering students never take those later courses, so were getting prepared for something they didn’t do. Due to “creeping prerequistism” in the 8 or 9 departments providing courses for the major, the bioengineering students were already taking far too many preparatory courses and far too few courses where they actually did things.

The goal of the new course is to have students design and build simple amplifiers to interface biosensors to computers. I chose a range of sensors from easy ones like thermistors, microphones, and phototransistors to ones more difficult to interface like EKG electrodes and strain-gauge pressure sensors. I’m not interested in cookbook, fill-in-the-blank labs—I want students to experience doing design in every lab, even the first one where they knew almost no electronics—and I want them to write detailed design reports on each lab, not fill-in-the-blank worksheets, like they get in chem and physics labs, and even intro EE labs.

The course was designed around the weekly design projects, not around preset topics that must be covered. Themes emerged only after the design projects were selected—the class comes back again and again to variations on voltage dividers, complex impedance, and op amps with negative feedback.

Students used a free online textbook rather than buying one, but bought about $90 of tools and parts. I tried out every potential design exercise at home—rejecting some as too hard, some as too easy, and tweaking others until they seemed feasible. I designed and had fabricated three different printed circuit boards for the course (not counting two boards which I redesigned after testing the lab at home).  One of the PC boards is a prototyping board for students to solder their own amplifier designs for the pressure-sensor and EKG labs. (Pass boards around.)

Developing a hands-on course like this is not a trivial exercise. I spent about 6 months almost full time working on the course design (without course relief). I made over 100 blog posts about the design of the course before class even started, and I now have over 230 posts (the URL is on the quarter-page handout, along with the URL for the course syllabus and lab assignments).  Since the posts average a couple of pages, this is more writing than a textbook (though not nearly as organized).

The course was prototyped last year as BME 194+194F “Group Tutorial” before being submitted to CEP for approval, and I wrote up notes after each class or lab (another 60 or so blog posts). Last year’s prototyping lead me to increase the lab time from 3 hours to 6 hours a week, which means I’m spending a lot of time this quarter rewriting all the lab handouts—splitting the material between the lab times and adding at-home or in-class design exercises between the two parts. Some of the fixes have worked well (students got comfortable plotting their data with gnuplot weeks earlier this year), but we’ve still run over time in some labs, even with 6 hours a week of lab, so more tweaking is needed.

This course is expensive in terms of professor time: I’m spending over 10 hours a week of direct classroom and lab time (not counting office hours, grading, prep time, or rewriting the lab handouts). Just providing feedback on the 5–10-page weekly design reports takes about 15 minutes per student per week (half an hour per report).

The students taking Applied Circuits last year were mostly seniors who had been avoiding EE 101, rather than the sophomores I’d intended the class for. This year, I have juniors and seniors, but still no sophomores. So the course still does not provide early exposure to engineering design, nor does it direct more students to the bioelectronics concentration rather than the biomolecular one (those there’s still hope for the latter).

My second partial solution was to create a new freshman design seminar in conjunction with the student Biomedical Engineering Society. This course has no prereqs, is only 2 units, and does not count towards any major or campus requirements.

Unlike the Applied Circuits course, I didn’t choose the design projects for this course ahead of time, because I had no idea what skills and interests the students would bring to the class—I’d not taught a freshman class in over a decade, having taught mainly seniors and grad students. I did try out 3 or 4 design projects on my own to gauge the skills needed to do them, but those projects all assumed some computer programming skills.

I prototyped the freshman design course last quarter as BME 94F and have submitted course forms to CEP for approval. Once again, I blogged notes after each class meeting (only about 39 posts, though—this was a less intensive effort on my part).

With no prereqs, I couldn’t assume that students had any relevant skills, though it turned out that all this year’s students had had biology, chemistry, and at least conceptual physics in high school. Only one student had ever done any computer programming, though—a big hole in California high school education—and only a few had any experience building anything. (AP physics classes were the most common exposure to building something.) On the first-day survey the students indicated an interest in learning some programming and electronics, so we did a little programming with an Arduino microcontroller board—I’ll try to up that content next year.

I started out teaching generic design concepts using a photospectrometer as an example. The concepts include specifying design goals and constraints, dividing a problem into subproblems, interface specification, and iterative design.The photospectrometer turned out to be too complex, and I’ll probably start with a simpler colorimeter next year, and have the students design, build, and program it before they start on their own projects.

My third partial solution has been a complete overhaul of the bioengineering curriculum, which is currently before CEP for approval. No new courses were created for this overhaul, but all the concentrations were changed. For example, half the chemistry courses were removed from concentrations other than biomolecular, to make room for more courses in electronics, robotics, psychology, or computer science. And some the orphan math courses were removed from the biomolecular concentration to make room for more advanced biology. Long-term, I’m hoping to convince some of the other departments to remove excessive prerequisites, so that students can take more interesting and useful courses before their senior year.

I could go on all afternoon about these courses and curriculum design, but I’m running out of  time, so I’ll leave you with these take-away messages:

  1. The value of University education is in detailed feedback from professors in labs and on written reports, not in the lectures.
  2. Students should be solving real problems with multiple solutions, not fill-in-the-blank or multiple-choice toy exercises.
  3. These courses require a lot of time from the professors, and so they are expensive to offer.
  4. Failure to teach such courses, though, makes the University education no longer worthy of the name.

For those of you not present—the quarter-page handout will have the URLs for this blog’s table of contents pages for the circuits course and the freshman design course, in addition to the two class web pages:

In addition to the quarter-page handout, I also plan to have copies of the prototyping board (both bare boards and ones that I used for testing out EKG or instrumentation amp circuits), one of the pressure sensors (on another PC board I designed), and the hysteresis oscillator boards.  If I can get it working again, I may also wear the blinky EKG while I’m talking.

Preparing this talk has been weird for me—I can’t remember ever having scripted out a talk to this level of detail.  For research talks, I usually spend many hours designing slides, and relying on the slides to trigger the appropriate talk. For classes, I usually think obsessively about the material for a day or two ahead of time, sometimes writing down a few key words to trigger my memory, but mainly giving an extemporaneous performance that relies heavily on audience participation. I had one memorable experience where a student asked me for a copy of my lecture notes after a class—I handed her the 1″ PostIt that had my notes, but warned her that I’d only covered the first word that day, and that it would take the rest of the week to cover the rest.

Doing this short a talk without slides and without time to rehearse will probably require me to read the talk—something else I’ve never done. (I know, I should have rehearsed during our one-week spring break, but I had a 2-day RNA research symposium, a faculty meeting about who we would offer our faculty slot to, meetings with grad students, and feverish rewriting of the first few lab handouts for the circuits course.)

2014 March 11

Why few women in engineering?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:33
Tags: , , ,
The Washington Post recently published an opinion piece by Catherine Rampell with a somewhat unusual, but plausible explanation why some fields end up with more men than women (as most of the engineering fields do). The theory is that women are more discouraged by a B in an entry-level course than men are (she cites some data from econ courses that support that theory, though it is only correlation, not necessarily causation).
Plenty has been written about whether hostility toward female students or a lack of female faculty members might be pushing women out of male-dominated majors such as computer science. Arcidiacono’s research, while preliminary, suggests that women might also value high grades more than men do and sort themselves into fields where grading curves are more lenient.
As parents and teachers we encourage children to pursue fields that they enjoy, that they are good at, and that can support them later in life. It may be that girls are getting the “that they are good at” message more strongly than boys are, or that enjoyment is more related to grades for girls. These habits of thought can become firmly set by the time students become men and women in college, so minor setbacks (like getting a B in an intro CS course) may have a larger effect on women than on men.
I’m a little wary of putting too much faith in this theory, though, as the author exhibits some naiveté:
But I fear that women are dropping out of fields such as math and computer science not because they’ve discovered passions elsewhere but because they fear delivering imperfection in the “hard” fields that they (and potential employers) genuinely love. Remember, on net, many more women enter college intending to major in STEM or economics than exit with a degree in those fields. If women were changing their majors because they discovered new intellectual appetites, you’d expect to see greater flows into STEM fields, too.
It is very difficult for students, male or female, to transfer into STEM majors late—the number of required courses and prerequisite chains are too long.  As long as the humanities majors have few, unchained requirements and STEM majors have many, chained requirements, the transfer out of STEM will be far larger than the transfer into STEM. Expecting equal flow in both directions is naive.
But there is, I believe, a greater proportional loss of women from STEM fields in college than men, and most of the interventions trying to reduce that loss have not been very effective.  (Harvey Mudd has had some success, attributed to various causes.) If the theory put forth by Rampell is valid, what interventions might be useful? Here are a few I thought of:
  • Higher grades in beginning classes. Engineering courses generally average 0.4 or 0.5 grade points lower than the massively inflated grades in humanities courses. I doubt, somehow, that many engineering faculty will be comfortable with the humanities approach of giving anyone who shows up an A, no matter how bad their work. So I don’t think that this idea has any merit.
  • Lower entry points. One of the things that Harvey Mudd did was to require every freshman to take CS and to introduce a lower-level CS course for those who did not have previous programming. By having some lower-level courses, students could get high grades in their first course without teachers having to water down existing classes or engage in grade inflation. By requiring the course of all students, students who avoided the subject for fear of not being able to compete are given a chance to discover an interest in the field (and, apparently, many women at Harvey Mudd do discover an interest in CS as a result of the required course).
  • Extra tutoring help for B students in entry-level courses. Almost all the “help” resources at the University seem to be aimed at getting students from failing to passing—but the students who are barely passing after massive help do not make good engineering majors, and are likely to fail out of the major later on. It would be far more productive to try to turn the Bs into As, retaining more women (and minorities) in the field. Of course, this means that the assistance has to be at a higher level than it often is now—the tutors need to know the material extremely well and be able to assist others to achieve that expertise.  Basic study skills and generic group help may be good for getting from failing to passing, but may not be enough to get from B to A.
  • More information to students about the feasibility and desirability of continuing with a B. This sort of encouragement probably has to happen one-on-one from highly trusted people (more likely peers than adults).

These ideas are definitely half-baked—I’m not even fully convinced that the theory behind them is valid, much less that they would have the desired effect. I welcome comments and suggestions from my readers.

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