Rick Vaz, Worcester Polytechnic Institute – Women in STEM Fields

On Worcester Polytechnic Institute Week:  Keeping more women in STEM programs is a key focus for the future.

Rick Vaz, professor of interdisciplinary and global studies, explores one way to do it.

As Director of WPI’s Center for Project-Based Learning, I work with colleagues across campus to help advance project-based learning at colleges and universities around the nation and the globe. We also support project-based learning here on the WPI campus. Most of my scholarly and professional activity centers around experiential and international education. Through my involvement in organizations such as the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the American Society for Engineering Education, I work to promote WPI’s approach to undergraduate education as a national model.

I received my PhD in electrical engineering from WPI, focusing on signal analysis and machine vision. I held systems and design engineering positions with the Raytheon Company, GenRad Inc., and the MITRE Corporation before joining the WPI Electrical and Computer Engineering faculty in 1987. While I greatly enjoyed my work as an engineering faculty member, over time my interests in interdisciplinary teaching and learning and international education resulted in increasing involvement in WPI’s student project programs, both on campus and elsewhere. I served as Dean of Interdisciplinary and Global Studies for ten years, and have advised hundreds of undergraduate research projects in Australia, England, Greece, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Namibia, the Netherlands, Thailand, and the United States.

Women in STEM Fields

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Despite years of effort, attracting and retaining more women into STEM fields remains an elusive challenge. Research suggests women are more motivated than men by work that helps others, and by collaborative work. While science and technology can transform lives and are increasingly collaborative, too often they are viewed as solitary pursuits more focused on things than on people.

A recent study sheds light on how pedagogy could address these challenges. The study looked at over 2500 STEM graduates from a project-based curriculum ranging over 38 graduating classes. Alumni were asked about long-term impacts of undergraduate project work. While most alumni reported a wide range of benefits, women reported more positive impacts from a project-based education than men in 36 of 39 areas.

Some differences were in professional impacts. Women were significantly more likely than men to report that project work helped them “much” or “very much” in problem solving, communication, and professional interactions.

Differences in personal impacts were equally striking, with women reporting benefits in character development and self-efficacy at significantly higher rates than men.

In interviews, alumnae described how real-world applications involved in project work helped them see how technical careers could connect with their interests. One said “these projects really allowed me to see the impacts on society that engineering can have…, and it really stimulated my interest in staying with engineering.”

While the study reveals a wide range of professional and personal benefits to both men and women, these differences suggest that project-based learning could be a powerful strategy to attract and retain more talented women into science and technology fields.

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  1. Elwanda McKinnon Coston

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