Academic journal article Australasian Journal of Engineering Education

Using Engineering Activities to Engage Middle School Students in Physics and Biology

Academic journal article Australasian Journal of Engineering Education

Using Engineering Activities to Engage Middle School Students in Physics and Biology

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Overall, there is an under-representation of female students within the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, particularly in the disciplines of physics and engineering (Brotman and Moore 2008; Kiwana, Kumar, and Randerson 2011). One exception is female participation in the biological sciences. Conversely, male students are more prominently seen in physics and engineering studies and are less inclined to study the biological sciences (Buccheri, Gurber, and Bruhwiler 2011; Sikora and Pokropek 2012; Spall et al. 2004). This type of gender segregation is observed in many countries around the world and is not directly indicative of individual cultures (Sikora and Pokropek 2011).

The gender divide between biological and physical sciences is observed from early childhood right through to under-graduate studies and subsequent career pathways. Recent reports indicate that in organisation for economic cooperation and development [OECD] countries 5% of 15-year-old girls expect careers in engineering and computing compared with 18% of 15-year-old boys, whilst 16% of girls expect careers in the health services compared with 7% of boys (OECD 2012). Similar results were found in a longitudinal study of middle school students (n = 482) in Southern California public schools. The participants completed a 10 page 'Is Science Me?' survey of mostly Likert-type items in years 7, 8 and 9. Exploration of the gender differences in engineering and science career preferences established that the male students were twice as likely to express an interest in a career in science as female students and were three times as likely to express an interest in a career in engineering (Ing, Aschbacher, and Tsai 2014). Whilst extensive efforts have been made to encourage female participation in traditionally male-dominated fields, the reverse is rarely attempted. It appears that whilst female participation in some areas has increased, male participation in traditionally female-dominated fields has not changed (Ecklund, Lincoln, and Tansey 2012).

A number of possible explanations have been suggested regarding the reasons why the gap may exist, including science self-concept, gender essentialism and intrinsic motivators. The notion of science self-concept is related to the belief that one's abilities in science are domain-specific rather than task-specific (Sikora and Pokropek 2011), and gender essentialism refers to the belief that a given gender is more capable of performing certain tasks (Sikora and Pokropek 2012). Intrinsic motivators also influence what males and females consider important. Primarily, females find interacting with people and animals more appealing whilst boys are more interested in 'objects' (Graziano et al. 2012; Graziano, Habashi, and Woodcock 2011; Su, Rounds, and Armstrong 2009). Traditionally, females are perceived to have a greater ability for nurturing and social interaction, consistent with the perceived values associated with the biological sciences. Conversely, males are considered to be more suited to problem-solving and analytical tasks, such as those involved in the physical sciences (Sikora and Pokropek 2011, 2012). Ing and her colleagues (2014) suggest these notions can be challenged by introducing middle school students to careers that improve health and well-being in society. They report that interest in particular disciplines and careers is often related to childhood interests, which include discovering new things that help the environment or people's health for both males and females, whilst young females are less interested in designing and inventing, solving problems and using technology.

Acknowledging gender differences is important but addressing and challenging those differences in research studies is problematic--longitudinal studies are recommended though not always possible (Honey, Pearson, and Schweingruber 2014). For the purposes of this project, issues related to identifying with stereotypes will be explored through the notion of student identity. …

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