Photograph by Getty Images
By Anne Fisher
August 25, 2015

As recent Twitter campaigns like #ILookLikeAnEngineer have shown, stereotypes are powerful — perhaps especially in high school, where students are quick to pigeonhole each other (and themselves) into cliques like jocks, cheerleaders, brainiacs, computer geeks, and so on. High school also happens to be where people start to think seriously about what they want to do when they grow up.

In practical terms, according to new research, that means many teenaged girls who might otherwise consider a career in STEM are turned off by the computer-geek image. A pair of experiments with 270 14-to-18-year-old students in two different high schools shows that three times as many girls were interested in enrolling in a computer science classes if the classroom where it was taught was “less geeky,” the study says.

“Our findings show that classroom design matters. It can transmit stereotypes to high school students about who belongs, and who doesn’t, in computer science,” observes Allison Master, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Science (I-LABS) who led the study. “Inaccurate negative stereotypes make girls feel they don’t fit with computer science.”

Simple as it sounds, redecorating computer-science classrooms, Master adds, “reveals a new way to draw girls into pipeline [STEM] courses.”

In the study, a group made up of half boys and half girls filled out questionnaires about their interest in computer science, their sense of belonging in a computer class, and how closely they felt they personally fit the “computer geek” stereotype.

 

The kids were then shown two classrooms where a hypothetical computer-science class would be held. One resembled the roommates’ apartment on “The Big Bang Theory,” littered with “Star Trek/Star Wars items,” science-fiction books, computer parts, and video games. The other classroom featured “nonstereotypical objects” like art and nature posters, lamps, general-interest magazines, and plants.

Most of the boys didn’t prefer either classroom over the other, and their level of interest in studying computer science stayed the same no matter which room they were told the class would be in. But 68% of the girls chose the less “geeky” room, and were three times as likely to say they would sign up for a class if it were taught there.

“It’s nice that the less-geeky room gained so many girls but didn’t lose any of the boys,” Master notes, adding that if schools want to raise female enrollment in computer classes, “they should make sure that the classrooms avoid stereotypes and communicate to students that everyone is welcome and belongs.”

The study, partially funded by the National Science Foundation, will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology.

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