Feeling like you belong in a field has a dramatic impact on your success in that field. That’s the message of Scott Barry Kaufman‘s recent post, The Need for Belonging in Math and Science, in Scientific American’s Beautiful Minds blog. Kaufman, a cognitive psychologist at New York University interested in the development of intelligence and creativity, tells the story of Catherine Good, a gifted mathematician at an early age who later experienced a professional crisis that led her to question her abilities, her “giftedness”, and her career choice. She encountered a culture of talent in mathematics, where the students who are encouraged are the ones who seem to develop elegant solutions as if they possessed an underlying gift. Since she was finding that she hard to work hard at her studies, she felt that she no longer belonged to this special gifted class, and she chose to leave mathematics as a field.
Fortunately, Good attended a lecture at that time by Joshua Aronson about stereotype threat, a situation in which a person could potentially confirm a negative stereotype about their social group. Stereotype threat can have a significant negative effect on performance. For example, girls might not perform well on math tests due to the stereotype that girls aren’t good at math. Good decided to pursue her Ph.D. in social psychology with Aronson, and her research along with that of her colleagues has shown that the degree of certainty or uncertainty about belonging to a group or a field leads to differences in achievement. In other words, belonging matters.
Uncertainty about belonging may contribute to the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields. Kaufman quotes these figures: in 2003, women earned only 24% of doctoral degrees in mathematics and only 17% of doctoral degrees in engineering. In 2000, less than 10% of university faculty at universities were female. With this data as background, Good, Aneeta Rattan, and Carol Dweck conducted a study to explore why females might be less inclined to purse mathematics-related fields. In particular, they explored whether a feeling of belonging to the field of mathematics can predict their desire to pursue math. They measured belonging on this scale:
- Membership (“I feel like I belong to the math community”)
- Acceptance (“I feel accepted”)
- Affect (“I feel comfortable”)
- Desire to Fade (“I wish I could fade into the background and not be noticed”)
- Trust (“I trust my instructors to be committed to helping me learn”).
Their research found that this scale predicted both men’s and women’s likelihood of pursuing math related fields, and that prior achievement in math did not predict a sense of belonging. A further study yielded an even more insightful result: it found that “the more women perceived signals in their environment that math ability is a fixed trait, and the more they perceived negative stereotypes about women in math, the more likely they were to show a drop in a sense of belonging. In turn, this lowered sense of belonging led to a lower desire to pursue math in the future as well as lower math grades.”
On the other hand, the more women perceive signals that math skills can be cultivated and developed, the more sense of belonging they feel, even if there are negative stereotypes in the environment. This finding is critical: the message that math ability can be acquired can protect women from stereotype threat, increase their sense of belonging, and help maintain their intention to pursue math in the future.
In our S.M.A.R.T. Adventures games, like “Sabotage at the Space Station“, we strive to encourage this sense of belonging in STEM fields by creating a peer group for our Star player to work with, along with a STEM focused agency, S.M.AR.T., in which she is formally welcomed as a member. We also address stereotype threat by providing messages (signals) of encouragement and reinforcement from peers and female role models that girls are great at math, and that math can be learned by practice and is not a talent that is available only to the special gifted few. Click here to learn more about our mission.
The study by Good, Rattan, and Dweck also found that there are long-term consequences to negative stereotypes. In short, exposure to negative stereotypes decreases women’s sense of belonging, which affects both their performance and their intent to pursue math related fields. And since math is a gateway to other STEM fields, their decreased sense of belonging essentially shuts the door to pursuing STEM careers. The researchers also noted that these issues affect other groups that suffer from negative stereotypes, such as Black and Latino Americans and students with learning disabilities.
The bottom line is that a feeling of belonging in math and math related fields, and being in a learning environment that is accepting, comfortable, and encouraging, matters a great deal in whether women pursue STEM careers.
You can read Kaufman’s entire post here: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/2013/10/21/the-need-for-belonging-in-math-and-science/.