Glenna C. Bett, PhD

Laurene M. Tumiel-Berhalter, PhD

New Education Program Aimed at Empowering Women in STEM

Published February 22, 2018

A novel education program is directed at helping women pursuing careers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workforce to recognize and overcome gender inequality.

“We hope to engage more young women in STEM and arm them with strategies to recognize situations and to address them. As a result, there will be more women in STEM and more who rise to leadership positions in the workforce.”
Associate professor of family medicine

The NAVIGATE Project is being developed by a University at Buffalo-led, multidisciplinary research team, which includes faculty from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Women Fill Only 24 Percent of STEM Jobs in U.S.

The innovative training program relies on case study teaching methods to increase the skills of STEM women to navigate effectively past instances of bias, inequity or discrimination in the workforce.

“We’re great at teaching women science and engineering, but we’ve done a poor job equipping them with skills to overcome gender discrimination, bias and inequity,” says Liesl Folks, a principal investigator of the research team and dean of UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

The U.S. has made some progress addressing the gender gap in the STEM workforce. But problems persist. For example, women fill 47 percent of all U.S. jobs but only 24 percent of STEM jobs, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Project Concept Evolved From UB Cooperative

The research team, which has received nearly $500,000 in National Science Foundation (NSF) grants, will address the problem by utilizing the case study teaching method, which presents content in a narrative format accompanied by questions and activities that promote group discussion and the solving of complex problems.

“The case study method has been used very successfully in disciplines such as law and business, so we are testing the effectiveness of using this approach to teach women how to recognize and address professional gender bias,” says Glenna C. Bett, PhD, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and a co-principal investigator.

Bett, deputy director of the UB Gender Institute, notes the original concept for the NAVIGATE Project was developed from the UB Women in STEM Cooperative.

Case Studies Drawn From Personal Experiences

Using the case study method in the classroom to develop problem-solving skills related to bias and discrimination will increase students’ confidence in dealing with real-world problems that they may encounter, either during their studies or in the workplace, Folks says.

For example, a group of students could be assigned a case that describes what it’s like to be a young female computer scientist who is continuously asked by her boss to join him for drinks after work.

Because lessons are blended into compelling and relatable stories, students move beyond simply recalling knowledge to a much deeper understanding involving decision-making and analytical skills.

The case studies are drawn from personal and shared experiences, and existing literature and data. 

“After I had worked on the case studies with the participants, several students told me that they felt I had based the case study on their own experiences,” Bett says.

“It is not surprising, as many gender-bias situations are repeated over and over. Discussing and delineating options, decision trees and scripting scenarios give participants the tools and resources to navigate these situations.”

Sharing Approach With Other Universities a Key Goal

Laurene M. Tumiel-Berhalter, PhD, associate professor of family medicine and a co-principal investigator, agrees that using case studies providing real world examples are effective ways to help strategize situations to address the issues.

“These are very real experiences that people can relate to, and it leads to some really rich conversations,” she says.

Researchers will collect qualitative and quantitative data that evaluates how effective the cases are. The cases will be made available to the public through educational websites.

“If we determine that our approach is effective, the final part of the project will be scaling our approach so that other universities can use our system to help their graduate students,” Bett says.

“In the short term, we know we have already had an impact on some of the participants,” she adds. “In the informal activities, many participants mentioned this was the first time they had the opportunity to discuss these issues in a professional setting.”

UB Hosts National Center for Case Study Teaching

The team will benefit from UB’s expertise in the case study method, which has not been studied as a tool to overcome gender inequality. 

UB is a host for the NSF’s National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, and Nancy Schiller, engineering librarian in University Libraries, is co-director of the center and a co-principal investigator.

“We hope to engage more young women in STEM and arm them with strategies to recognize situations and to address them,” Tumiel-Berhalter says. “As a result, there will be more women in STEM and more who rise to leadership positions in the workforce.”

Other Underrepresented Groups Also May Benefit

Ultimately, the project aims to boost the number of women participating in the STEM workforce at all levels, and it may be adopted for other underrepresented groups in the STEM workforce, Folks says.

The NAVIGATE Project is supported by the NSF’s Innovations in Graduate Education Track, which supports projects that pilot, test and validate innovative and potentially transformative ways to teach STEM.

The study is led by UB and California Polytechnic State University. Coleen Carrigan, PhD, of California Polytechnic State University is also a principal investigator.

Xiufeng Liu, PhD, a professor in UB’s Graduate School of Education, is a co-principal investigator.