How can we create gender balance in STEM?

The first time DIT PhD student Rachel Harding read a physics book, she knew this “absolutely fascinating subject” was the area of study she wished to pursue in college.

DIT PhD Student Rachel Harding works with secondary school student Dylan Bowe on spatial skills tasks.

The first time DIT PhD student Rachel Harding read a physics book, she knew this “absolutely fascinating subject” was the area of study she wished to pursue in college.

Having achieved first-class honours four years in a row while studying Physics at DIT, and winning the Intel Prize for the highest grade in Physics in her final year, Rachel is now working on her PhD on the National Spatial Skills Project. Her research is funded by the Irish Research Council and Intel Ireland. 

Spatial reasoning is the ability to understand, remember and mentally manipulate the spatial relationships between objects. There is strong evidence linking spatial skills to success in STEM, creativity and technical innovation. 

Rachel’s research project addresses a fundamental cognitive barrier to STEM: spatial skills. It also looks at gender differences. There have been many initiatives aimed at creating more gender balance in STEM courses and making STEM more attractive to female students, but they rarely address cognitive causes.

Professor Brian Bowe, the Principal Investigator on the National Spatial Skills Project, says: “Research studies have shown that spatial skills are a key indicator in how students perform in STEM subjects across all levels of education and significant gender differences favouring males have been observed consistently.”

Rachel is specifically interested in the relationship between spatial ability and maths – many studies have shown the two are intertwined, but more research is needed to fully understand how these abilities are linked.

She is currently busy testing spatial and maths abilities in secondary and primary level education in Ireland. To date, over 7,000 students in 42 Irish secondary schools have been tested. She will then investigate the relationships between spatial skills, maths and gender; academic success in STEM subjects; and student’ perceptions of STEM. Preliminary findings of her research indicate that while students’ spatial skills are increasing with age, the gap between girls and boys is also increasing.

The good news - spatial skills can be improved. “If we can shed more light on the relationship between spatial ability and maths,” she explains, “we can develop training courses and materials for these skills that can be introduced into Irish schools. We are arguing that girls need to develop these skills at primary level, before it’s too late and they have already decided that they are bad at maths or STEM is not for them.”

The project has great potential in terms of developing spatial skills at a crucial point in young people’s education. The hope is that these interventions will attract more students to STEM education, particularly female students; increase retention; improve students’ abilities in STEM subjects; and prepare more female students to be successful in STEM careers.

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