Banazîr the Jedi Hobbit (banazir) wrote,
Banazîr the Jedi Hobbit

Gender-specific attrition in STEM: primary, secondary math education

Working with my students and friends on programming, and refreshing my own (good) knowledge of C++ and (nascent) knowledge of Java has put me in a heavily reflective state of mind about how basic education in Science Technology, and Mathematics (given the acronym of STEM by NSF) in the USA works.

More to the point, introspection and discussions have shown me that it doesn't.
My virtuosity thread from a couple of months ago was aimed at this problem, in large degree.

What do I think is wrong with math and computing education?

  • The "OMG, Boring" Effect: Ever been in a course where you are so bored to tears that time seems to slow down?1 As a university professor, I think that sometimes service to a curriculum or syllabus desensitizes us to this effect. How to generate interest and enthusiasm among male and female students is another matter. The tronkie stereotype is quite heavy. In fact, if any of you have ideas on bolstering enthusiasm for CS subject matter, I'd really appreciate suggestions. The only thing I can tell you for sure is that I do my best to show enthusiasm for it myself.

  • The Hotshot Effect: Well, I'd like to start with this because I've seen it discourage both male and female students, not all of whom are technically weak. I was once told on a faculty job interview that the attrition rate of females from computer science1 was primarily attributed isolation at that university. I have heard good students say that they feel stifled by show-offs. The thing is, not all show-offs are actually the class virtuosos. I know (from being one, the other, and both on occasion) that phenomenon of the "teacher's pet" calling out answers can indeed keep move introverted types from speaking up.

  • The "Here, Lemme Do It" Effect: This ensues when someone is helping another and becomes impatient or lazy as an educator, and tries to "push the river" by rushing the tutee to a solution. It is an echo of the Hotshot Effect, and one reason I never just give code or solutions to students or friends. When my classmates did it for me, I would always resist; and when my students do it (or try to), I always make them stop and show me how they did it. Give a person a fish (or a steak if it's darana), and he or she will eat for a day; teach him or her how to fish, and he or she will eat for a lifetime.

  • The False Egalitarianism Effect: In my grade-skipping thread, I asserted that teachers of the gifted are best advised to let students learn at their own pace. There is a generalization of this statement for teachers of special-needs students in general: teaching to the average student is not teaching to the class as a whole. In primary school I was often held back because the teacher didn't want anyone to get "too far ahead". I saw a few of the students (most of whom probably had reading disabilities, in retrospect) being pushed beyond their abilities as well.

  • The "No Pain, Some Gain" Effect: deire wrote in the virtuosity thread:
    I often find that adults assume erroneously that they have no talent because they can't do something they've never tried right out of the box.
    There is a corollary to this: practice may improve, but allowances also have to be made by teachers for the learning curve, as well. The problem is that interest wanes and confidence deteriorates, and teachers lose tolerance for it. (Some of the students in the Computers and Society course at Stanford surveyed this loss of interest and confidence among women undergraduates in CS.)
    Another point that bears repeating is that one gets out of education what one puts into it - sometimes more if the teacher is a capable and committed mentor; sometimes less, if the teacher is selfish or discouraging; but nearly always in some proportion to the learner's input.

  • Learned Helplessness: Another thing that we teachers have to watch out for is the intellectual laziness that derives from "classical conditioning towards apathy". I have had students who assiduously give up, fall down, or otherwise throw themselves at the feet of instructors and advisors. It's frustrating yet pathetic, and we learn as faculty not to become overly attached, but I for one am still left wondering what I can do.

    From the Learned Helplessness home page at U. Penn's Psychology department:
    In early 1965, Martin E. P. Seligman and his collegues, while studying the relationship between fear and learning, accidentally discovered an unexpected phenomenon while doing experiments on dogs using Pavlovian (classical conditioning). As you may observe in yourselves or a dog, when you are presented with food, you have a tendency to salivate. Pavlov discovered that if a ringing bell or tone is repeatedly paired with this presentation of food, the dog salivates. Later, all you have to do is ring the bell and the dog salivates. However, in Seligman's experiment, instead of pairing the tone with food, he paired it with a harmless shock, restraining the dog in a hammock during the learning phase. The idea, then, was that after the dog learned this, the dog would feel fear on the presentation of a tone, and would then run away or do some other behavior.

    Next, they put the conditioned dog into a shuttlebox, which consists of a low fence dividing the box into two compartments. The dog can easily see over the fence, and jump over if it wishes. So they rang the bell. Surprisingly, nothing happened! (They were expecting the dog to jump over the fence.) Then, they decided to shock the conditioned dog, and again nothing happened! The dog just pathetically laid there! Hey, what's going! When they put a normal dog into the shuttlebox, who never experienced inescapable shock, the dog, as expected, immediately jumped over the fence to the other side. Apparently, what the conditioned dog learned in the hammock, was that trying to escape from the shocks is futile. This dog learned to be helpless! This result was opposite to that predicted by B.F. Skinner's behaviorism, which argued that the dog must have been given a positive reward (like a yummy dog biscuit) to just lie there.


In other news: I got 4.5 hours of sleep for the first time in 7 days. 3, 3, 3, 3, 3, 1.5, 4.5. I started to feel tired when my cable modem went down for the third time. I hate feeling tired when I am behind on work.

1 Yeah, um, careful there, zengeneral, robbyjo, scottharmon, hermes_imagod, and chriszhong. (Just kidding! You may speak freely. No, really!)
2 Anecdotally: 45% of STEM majors by the end of high school are female; 20% of bachelor's degree recipients in the USA are female (39% in 1986, 25% in 1987, less than 20% at the low point); and this continues to about 15% of Ph.D. graduates, to less than 10% after tenure.


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