Monday, July 6, 2015

Attention Mentors: "Failure to Encourage is Taken as Discouragement"

Contributed by Brett Morris

Academic mentors play a pivotal role in the development of undergraduates in STEM fields as professors, research advisors, teaching assistants and role models. One of the most important responsibilities of academic mentors is to provide constructive feedback on student performance in research and in classes, and the delivery of feedback can be critical to achieving its intended outcome.

Elaine Seymour (1995) conducted a huge series of interviews of undergraduates who pursued STEM degrees to find what may have caused some students to switch out of STEM majors while others persisted through to graduation. Seymour's interviews noted that female students and students of color were disproportionately more likely to feel discouraged by their mentors' lack of encouragement. That is not to say that the students craved praise that they did not receive, but rather that students who needed and sought reinforcements in self-confidence from mentors often did not receive it. Seymour suggests that even in the absence of negative criticism, lack of encouragement is perceived as discouragement.

A complementary result was found in Cohen, Steele & Ross (1999), who studied the response of students to criticism as a function of the students' and mentors' races. Black and white students were prompted to write an essay, which received critical feedback for revisions. Afterwards, a survey polled how biased the students perceived the white reviewer to be, and how motivated they were to complete the task after receiving the review. The feedback was returned in one of three flavors, either (1) unbuffered criticism, (2) criticism with general praise (a positive buffer), and (3) criticism with acknowledgement that the reviewer is judging the work against high standards, and with assurances that the students were capable of producing work that reached those standards.

Cohen et al. find that when students are presented with unbuffered criticism, black students feel that the reviewer is biased and feel unmotivated to complete the task, compared to black or white students who received criticism with a positive buffer or with assurances and high standards. This affect can be ameliorated simply by adding a positive buffer to criticism or preferably by assuring that students are being held to high standards and that they are capable of meeting those standards. Again, feedback without encouragement is disproportionately perceived by underrepresented minorities as discouragement.


Discussion Questions

  • How is feedback in the coursework that you assign (grading, annotations on submitted papers) perceived? Is it "cold", "indifferent", and "intimidating" as Seymour's subjects so often felt?
  • How often do you directly, verbally acknowledge the difficulty of your research mentees' tasks with them, and reassure them that they have the skills to complete their tasks?
  • Have you ever discussed with your capable students that they are capable of pursuing STEM degrees? Have you expressly encouraged them to do so?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Pre-Major in Astronomy Program (Pre-MAP) at the University of Washington

Contributed by Michael Tremmel

During the past 10 years, the Pre-Major In Astronomy Program (Pre-MAP) at the University of Washington (UW) has been a concerted effort to recruit and retain underrepresented students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The program is meant to give freshman undergraduate students an introduction to scientific research in astronomy. The bulk of Pre-MAP takes place in the form of a seminar taught by a graduate student where students learn computer programming (Unix, bash, python, etc), practice reading scientific articles, and in the latter half of the course, get paired up with mentors to work on a short (5 week) research project. The general philosophy behind Pre-MAP is that students who are introduced to research and made to feel a part of a broader academic community will be more likely to continue and succeed in STEM fields. By the end of the program, Pre-MAP students have an entire cohort of peers, graduate students, and a contingency of faculty and post-docs with which they feel comfortable interacting. Often students continue these relationships beyond Pre-MAP, allowing them to continue research and get academic help and advice. According to an in-depth student evaluation, interacting with graduate students is particularly beneficial for our students, as it provides them with role models and encourages them to imagine themselves as scientists.

Recently, some of us involved with Pre-MAP conducted an analysis of the program's success (Garner et. al 2013). We examine the program in the context of
  • Recruitment
  • Student academic performance
  • Student retention rate
  • Time to graduate
We find that Pre-MAP successfully attracts a racially and gender diverse population of students compared with the overall UW population. The academic performance of these students is on par with other physics/astronomy students, and their time to graduate is similar. Controlling for math placement, Pre-MAP students are noticeably more likely to graduate with a STEM degree compared to their peers. This is a significant result, particularly given the fact that these students are more diverse than the ambient population of STEM students. Additionally, we find that initial math placement and performance are important in determining the likelihood of STEM retention for the general student body. Pre-MAP has has significant positive effects on STEM retention for students placing in lower math classes (beginning calculus, pre-calculus).

In its first 10 years of existence, Pre-MAP has been a great success and all of us involved look forward to many more years of encouraging and enabling young students to study STEM. It is our hope that Pre-MAP can be used as a guiding example of a successful diversity effort. Of course, Pre-MAP is not the only diversity program around. Since its inception, several such efforts have been started at a variety of different institutions, each with their own emphasis and structure. A few examples:


Discussion Questions

  • How can we make a program like Pre-MAP at our institution?
  • What are the challenges and/or advantages at our institution for creating such a program?
  • How can our department be more welcoming/inclusive to underrepresented undergraduates?
  • What can we do to encourage students to pursue research sooner in their academic careers?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Cognitive Costs of the Colorblind Narrative

Contributed by Sarah Jane Schmidt

There are two opposing narratives that describe the inclusion of ethnic minorities in the workplace. Colorblindness downplays the differences between people of different ethnicities and focuses on their shared humanity (similar to "not seeing race"), while multiculturalism highlights the differences between those people. While the colorblind narrative currently dominates our society, it is problematic for many reasons (and is often used as an excuse to ignore white privilege).

This study (Holoien & Shelton 2012) was designed to study cognitive depletion of ethnic minorities in paired interactions with white people. In 78 total same-sex pairs (31 white/white, 25 white/asian, 23 white/black), the white person (or one of the white people) was given an ideological prime designed to champion either colorblindness or multiculturalism. The pair then interacted for 5 minutes about race (which was filmed and coded), then each participant took a test designed to measure cognitive performance (essentially, measuring how quickly and well each one is thinking).

During the pair's interactions about race, white people who were primed with colorblindness were more likely to downplay to importance of racial issues and say more racist things than those who were primed with multiculturalism. The ethnic minorities paired with colorblind primed white people were also significantly more cognitively depleted than the partners of white people primed with multiculturalism. The conclusion is that the colorblind narrative causes cognitive depletion for ethnic minorities, likely due to the decreased racial sensitivity displayed by white people who are "colorblind."


Discussion Questions

  • How does the prevalence of a colorblind narrative affect people of color in STEM fields?
  • What are some other ways that then colorblind narrative is harmful?
  • What does multiculturalism mean to you?
  • How can you embrace a multicultural environment?
  • Microaggressions
  • White Privilege
  • Colorblindness/"not seeing race"

Suggested tags

racism, academic culture, department climate, PoC, WoC

Monday, June 15, 2015

White Privilege

Contributed by Nell Byler

Racism did not begin and end with Jim Crow. Fighting racism isn't just about battling hate crimes and overtly discriminatory laws. To paraphrase Peggy McIntosh, racism is more than just individual acts of meanness – it's the invisible system that bestows unearned advantages and power to one group of people and denies those advantages to another. Often, those benefiting from privilege are unaware of how it has made their life easier and better. Acknowledging this privilege – that subtle racism exists and that you benefit from it – is the first step to becoming a more effective ally.
"White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks." – Peggy McIntosh.
Unpack your own invisible knapsack and recognize the benefits you reap every day solely for looking like you do.

Note: One very common response to discussions of white privilege is to play the "trump card" of socioeconomic class; I intentionally link to an article that addresses this (resource 2). It's important to understand that privilege takes many forms - people can be privileged in some ways and not privileged in others (think: citizenship, class, sexual orientation and ability). It's also important to understand that all privilege is not created equal - and intersectionality allows us to examine the varying dimensions and degrees of discrimination.


Discussion Questions

  • In what ways does racial privilege apply to your life? In what was does it apply to the astronomical community? What might prevent us from seeing privilege?
  • Do organizations have a responsibility to balance their racial makeup? Why/why not?
  • Is color blindness the goal? If not, what is?
  • What can be done to dismantle unearned advantage?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The "Matilda Effect" and Gender Bias

Contributed by Nell Byler, Russell Dietrick

The Matilda Effect - The systematic under-recognition of women's contributions to science. Infamous examples from physics and astronomy include Lise Meitner's Nobel snub, Jocelyn Bell Burnell's Nobel snub, and "Pickering's Harem" of female computers. Research has shown that women receive grants less often, smaller grant allocations, fewer scientific awards, and less citations (Wenneras & Wold, 1997; Bornmann, Mutz, & Daniel, 2007; Lincoln, Pincus, Koster & Leboy, 2012).

As demonstrated in this disappointing study from 2012, gender bias in STEM fields exists at the hiring committee level, but it's likely that it plays a much broader role. In earlier career stages, peer evaluations are important for grant proposals, promotions, and networking. In this 2013 study, the authors found that abstracts from male authors were associated with greater "scientific quality" than those with female authors, and that the effect was stronger when the topic was stereotyped as "male-typed". While the differences in the evaluations are not large, small effects can multiply over a career.


Discussion Questions

  • Personal experiences: with your nearest neighbor or two, share something you have witnessed, experienced, or perpetrated in relation to gender bias. Have you found words, characteristics or behaviors that are heavily gendered?
  • Gender bias is almost always unconscious, and often equally committed by both men and women. In the above-mentioned study, participants rarely gave blatantly sexist reasoning behind ratings for male and female applications, and instead came up with myriad seemingly-legitimate reasons for a low rating an application with a female name attached. This implies that the unconscious bias leads to a harsher set of criteria for women - is being aware of the bias enough to combat it? What else could help during application review processes?
  • In the astronomical community: do you think this has an affect on citation counts? Do you use your first initials only on publications? Is a blind peer review really blind?
  • Is publication rate an equal opportunity metric?
  • The Matthew Effect - that well-known scientists are more likely to be credited for work than their lesser-known counterparts.
  • Women in STEM, microaggressions, gender bias, stereotypes

The "Genius Effect"

Contributed by Nell Byler, Russell Deitrick

The Genius Effect - That some fields (namely the hard sciences) require "innate genius" in order to succeed. This can serve to dissuade potential participants, predominantly from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields.
Women remain significantly under-represented in STEM fields - the so-called gender gap. While women hold more than half of the PhDs earned in biology, they make up less than 20% of the PhDs in physics and computer science. The authors of this study provide an explanation for the stagnation: the belief that success in a given field requires raw talent combined with stereotypes that men are more likely to possess that raw ability work in tandem to suppress female participation. Fields that had a greater emphasis on brilliance (math, physics, philosophy) subsequently had lower percentages of female PhDs. The trend held true when compared with the fraction of PhDs held by African Americans as well.
Figure 1:
The study found that field-specific ability beliefs correlated with gender disparity and could actually predict the percentage of female PhDs in a field.


Discussion Questions

  • Can you think of other things that are important to success other than "natural ability"?
  • Can you think of ways to introduce material in your Astro 101 labs that could de-emphasize the need for "genius" to succeed?
  • Can fictional geniuses hold back real people?
  • Women in STEM
  • Stereotype threat
  • Gender bias
  • Racial ability beliefs