Four Skills to Emphasize for STEM Students (part 2 in a series)

Four Skills to Emphasize for STEM Students (part 2 in a series)

Photo: Mark Schar

Part 2 of a four-part series, "Closing the Gender Gap in Your STEM Classroom," that bridges research to practice by providing you with seven key practices to make your STEM courses more inclusive.  In Part 1, Scutt explained some foundations of gender analysis, common metrics in research on STEM education, and conditional effects.

The original paper upon which the series is based is “Research-Informed Practices for Inclusive Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Classrooms: Strategies for Educators to Close the Gender Gap,” by Scutt, Gilmartin, Sheppard, and Brunhaver.  It can be downloaded from the American Society for Engineering Education’s 2013 Annual Conference Proceedings at

Four skills to emphasize in STEM

Here are the concrete actions you can take to make a difference for all students, particularly women. This post presents four “Skills to Emphasize” for the women you teach:

  1. A Foundation in Calculus
  2. Spatial Skills
  3. Communication
  4. Resilience

The research behind these four skills to develop in students has demonstrated their potential for considerable positive impact, even with minimal resources. The goal of this brief series is to present you with some of the most applicable recent research in STEM education so that you can run with the practices most relevant to you.

A Foundation in Calculus

It is hard to overstate the importance of a solid foundation in mathematics for all potential STEM students, but more specifically, calculus has been shown to be an especially important step in increasing women’s likelihood to pursue STEM.

As an educator, do everything you can to encourage your students, especially the underclassmen and women, to take an extra mathematics course. Here’s why:

Sadler and Tai’s “Two High School Pillars Supporting College Science” found that the best foundation for common introductory college science courses, as indicated by grades in those courses, is advanced study of mathematics in high school. Mathematics was the only subject studied in which years of instruction was a significant predictor of performance across introductory college biology, chemistry, and physics, and in some cases advanced math raised college science course grades more than advanced study of that same subject in high school did (Sadler & Tai, 2007).

Dr. Shelley Correll, Stanford Professor of Sociology, and (by courtesy) Graduate School of Business, found that taking calculus in high school had a conditional effect on choosing a quantitative (STEM) major through an interaction with sex. Specifically, “females who enrolled in high school calculus are 3.22 times more likely to choose a quantitative major than females who did not take calculus” (Correll, 2001). In comparison, that number is 2.27 for men (Correll, 2001). Thus, the positive effect of taking calculus on one’s choice of a quantitative major was greater for women than for men. It seems likely that the effect remains for college introductory calculus classes, not just high school ones. Encouraging girls to take calculus in their early college years may be a vital step in closing the gender gap in STEM participation by preparing them for the study of STEM.

Spatial Skills

Improving spatial skills improves retention of women engineering students and therefore can help to narrow the gender gap in STEM.

Spatial skills are involved in engineering in, for example, visualizing and sketching three-dimensional components and systems to build models. The pervasive stereotype that women have poor spatial skills may be contributing to the gender imbalance in STEM. However, no scientific support has been found for genetic or hormonal differences being the cause of gender differences in spatial skills (Assessing Women in Engineering (AWE) Project, 2005).

Although research is inconsistent as to the relation between actual engineering performance and spatial skills test scores[i] (Assessing Women in Engineering (AWE) Project, 2005), in a six-year longitudinal assessment, Dr. Sheryl Sorby found that first-year “female engineering students with poorly developed spatial skills who receive spatial visualization training are more likely to stay in the engineering program than are their peers who do not receive training” (Sorby, 2007) (Corbett, Hill, & Rose, 2010)  The difference in retention rates for men was not statistically significant and therefore the spatial-visualization course had a conditional effect by gender on students’ retention in the engineering program (Sorby, 2007).

Another example is that a workshop of just three hours provided “for low scoring students in their introductory engineering graphics course at the University of California at Berkeley… effectively eliminated previously established gender differences in spatial reasoning task scores” (Hsi, Linn, & Bell, 1997). With such a minimal time demand, there is no reason not to implement a spatial skills workshop into, for example, an organic chemistry class or an engineering drawing class, especially because several such workshops have already been designed[ii]. Since there are several types of spatial skills, choosing one to practice that is especially relevant to a current class activity or concept is a way to gradually build spatial skills.

Given gender differences in spatial skills assessment scores and the research showing the malleability of spatial skills in minimal time, the effect of spatial skills interventions seems promising in closing the gender gap of engineering programs.


Emphasizing the importance of communication skills in the practice of science and engineering and changing the perception that individuals cannot be gifted or skilled in both math and communication can help women feel that they can succeed in STEM. As an instructor, you can influence a student’s perception of both their own skills and of the skills a given profession demands.

Interpersonal communication and collaboration skills are generally (and misleadingly) portrayed as mutually exclusive to math and science skills, implying that people are almost always more skilled in one at the expense of the other. This is potentially damaging because students make relative comparisons of the feedback they receive in various subjects. In a longitudinal study of students in eighth grade through two years beyond high school, Correll observes that when students score highly on English tests, they tend to rate their math skills lower than if they based their self-assessments solely on their mathematical performance (Correll, 2001). Moreover, this negative effect of good English grades on mathematical self-assessments is stronger for females than for males; therefore, it is a conditional effect. Mathematical self-assessments are important because self-assessments of task competence are shown to have a stronger effect on career-relevant decisions than actual ability (Correll, 2001).

Avoid reinforcing Stanford’s “techie” versus “fuzzy” dichotomy and, instead, place emphasis on the integration of technical and communication skills in STEM. It’s a change in cultural attitude that can start with you, the person who students truly respect and admire.

In addition, whenever possible, break down the stereotype of the isolated engineering profession and replace it with the reality: twenty-first century engineers and scientists “must be team members who thrive while working with a variety of people having differing social, educational, and technical skills” (Seat, Parsons, & Poppen, 2001). This more dynamic, engaging environment is appealing to more students, particularly women.

There are various ways to convey the importance of communication in STEM. Situating communication or writing exercises in the context of a science or math activity can reinforce the fact that these so-called “soft” skills are necessary in the hard sciences. If you teach a STEM course involving a paper and/or presentation, weight clear writing and/or presentation skills appropriately to send the message to your students that those skills are valuable. Too often, I have seen these intangible aspects dismissed in my classes outside of the humanities.


This practice is about helping students learn to embrace challenges and setbacks by teaching them that their academic skills are malleable. In addition to combatting the negative stereotypes of their technical abilities that girls and women face, this practice is an important life lesson for all students.

Several studies by Carol Dweck, Stanford Professor of Psychology, have shown that focusing on the power of practice rather than inborn talent is a key component of success for students. This becomes especially important for students who are under negative stereotypes. Dweck calls the message of innate ability and natural talent a fixed-mindset message, whereas the message of interest, commitment, and hard work is a growth-mindset message.

A longitudinal study of college calculus students found that “students’ perceptions of two factors in their math environment—the message that math ability is a fixed trait and the stereotype that women have less of this ability than men—worked together to erode women’s, but not men’s, sense of belonging in math” (Good, Rattan, & Dweck, 2012). The fixed mindset, as opposed to one believing in malleable ability, has a conditional effect in that the fixed mindset is particularly damaging to women, likely due to the negative stereotype about their natural ability. However, “the more women perceived malleable-ability environments, the more they maintained a sense of belonging to math, even when they perceived their environments as highly gender-stereotypical” (Good, Rattan, & Dweck, 2012). Teaching the power of a growth mindset allows women to thrive, even when they understand the stereotypes against them.

I recommend directing students to The Resilience Project, directed by Adina Glickman, if they are ever questioning themselves or whether they are “cut out for” a certain major or profession. The Resilience Project is a wonderful and potentially life-changing resource formed by a collaboration of multiple Stanford offices.

Teaching the value of resilience and a love of challenges is within the realm of all instructors, and it may help women to be less intimidated by their STEM classes. In order to instill the importance of resilience, when talking to students about their progress, it’s important to praise effort rather than talent. I urge you, as an instructor, to share your stories of failure, struggle, hard work, passion, and persistence.


Coming up: Part 3 of 4 will discuss three scaffolds to implement in your courses. Part 4 will conclude the series by revisiting the actions you can take and providing direction should you seek further information.

See Also

Making Computer Science More Inclusive, on increasing the numbers of women in CS

Works Cited

Assessing Women in Engineering (AWE) Project. (2005). Visual Spatial Skills. Retrieved 2012, from AWE Research Overviews:

Corbett, C., Hill, C., & Rose, A. S. (2010). Why So Few? Women in science, technology, and mathematics. American Association of University Women Educational Foundation.

Correll, S. J. (2001). Gender and the career choice process: The role of biased self-assessments. American Journal of Sociology , 106 (6), 1722-1723.

Good, C., Rattan, A., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Why do women opt out? Sense of belonging and women’s representation in mathematics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 102 (4), 700.

Hsi, S., Linn, M. C., & Bell, J. E. (1997). The role of spatial reasoning in engineering and the design of spatial instruction. Journal of Engineering Education , 86, 151-158.

Sadler, P. M., & Tai, R. H. (2007). Two high school pillars supporting college science. Science , 317 (5837), 457-458.

Seat, E., Parsons, J. R., & Poppen, W. A. (2001). Enabling engineering performance skills: A program to teach communication, leadership, and teamwork. Journal of Engineering Education , 90 (1), 7-12.

Sorby, S. (2007). Developing 3D spatial skills for engineering students , 13 (1), 1–11.

[i] It is important to keep in mind that there are many types of spatial skills and therefore the type of spatial skill(s) tested in a given study may be responsible for the difficulty in drawing general conclusions from a body of spatial skills research.

[ii] This post is not intended to evaluate specific spatial skills development programs but it is worth noting that current work is underway by ENGAGE, an Extension Services Project funded by the National Science Foundation, that compiles spatial skills teaching resources.

Helena Scutt is a senior majoring in Biomechanical Engineering and coterming in Mechanical Engineering. She spent the summer of 2012 in Dr. Sheri Sheppard’s Designing Education Lab researching gender in engineering education. She is currently working on optogenetics in Dr. Scott Delp’s Neuromuscular Biomechanics Lab. She has been Captain of the Varsity Sailing Team for two years and is on the US Sailing Team Sperry Top-Sider.