Women Benefit from Project-Based Approach to Learning STEM

Taken for Granted
Kelly Krause, AAAS

Project-based education is particularly effective in helping women succeed at science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subjects, according to studies reported at Inside Higher Ed. A survey of nearly 40 years of alumni from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts, which since 1974 has required each student to participate in two major projects, found this approach "substantially more effective for women, suggesting that a project-based curriculum may boost female success in the science, technology, mathematics and engineering fields," writes Allie Grasgreen. During their undergraduate years at WPI, each student chooses one project that addresses "an interdisciplinary problem" and another that addresses "a problem in the student's major field." They work on teams while attempting to create solutions to real-world, practical problems.

A second study at WPI also examined the results of the project-based curriculum, which aims to develop "problem-solving and research skills, application of knowledge in context, communication and effective teamwork. But as [the second] study showed, the outcomes were even more pronounced for women, who appeared to gain more in the three dozen or so aspects of personal and professional development," Grasgreen adds.

It’s likely that connecting technical learning to solving real problems is what makes the approach so effective for women. As we have noted previously, research finds that women on average place a high value on having their work make a difference to people. Showing women students that engineering can make a difference should therefore make it more attractive to them, on average.

"It makes sense that girls would find more value in [project-based learning], given that women tend to care more about the social relevance of the work they do," says Christianne Corbett, who is a senior researcher at the American Association of University Women.

When Villanova University in Pennsylvania changed to a project-oriented engineering curriculum, its female engineering enrollment grew "significantly," according to Randy Weinstein, who is the university's dean for academic affairs.

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