A simple idea to help women see themselves in STEM

Professor NaLette Brodnax of Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy recently shared the results of a “nudging” experiment finding that incoming college freshman who better understood how technology courses aligned with their interests were more likely to sign up for courses in the field.

For the study, Brodnax created brochures with course selection information organized in a way that shows how a technology class would align with the student’s interests and degree requirements. The brochures were incorporated in the academic advising process of Indiana University’s freshman orientation. Brodnax found that students who received the brochure were more likely to register for a technology course, and she plans to track the intervention’s longer-term impact by analyzing whether students who participated in the study eventually decide to major in computer science or engineering.

“What led me to this intervention was a survey of all of the women on campus showing that they became more interested in technology as they matriculated. The thought was if we can introduce them to it early as freshman then, if they’re interested in it, they’ll be more likely to choose that as a major,” says Brodnax.

Women significantly underrepresented in computer science, engineering

The share of technology and engineering degrees awarded to women has been declining since the 1980s. According to the National Science Foundation, women in the U.S. have earned 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees since the late 1990s, but only 20 percent of computer science and engineering degrees. 

Schools have tried to increase women’s participation in STEM programs by restructuring curricula or sponsoring students to attend conferences with women technologists, but these solutions can be difficult and/or expensive to implement for large student bodies. Brodnax notes that her brochure, on the other hand, costs about 70 cents per student, offering a cost-effective way to expose more women to STEM courses. “My hope is the impact of this intervention will be at a much broader scale, and that we’ll be casting a wider net for women who are interested in technology but don’t get the exposure early enough,” Brodnax says.

Georgetown Professor NaLette Brodnax on increasing women’s participation in STEM

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