Three University of Richmond professors have received a National Science Foundation grant of nearly $250,000 to find ways to help women enter the growing, profitable science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

Known collectively as STEM, the fields continue to see a gender gap. Research has suggested that one reason is that women considering those careers “often find themselves threatened by the potential to confirm negative stereotypes associated with their gender,” said Crystal Hoyt, associate professor of leadership studies and psychology, and coordinator of Richmond’s Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies program.

Jeni Burnette, professor of psychology, will serve as lead researcher on the project. Joining her will be Hoyt and computer science professor Barry Lawson. In addition, two collaborators at Stanford University, communications professor Jeremy Bailenson and psychology professor Carol Dweck, will participate in the research.

Hoyt and Burnette said they decided to focus on computer science because recent studies showed that by 2018, more than 50 percent of STEM jobs would be in that field. “STEM is going to be a big part of where this country is going,” Burnette said.

They contacted Lawson for his computer science expertise. Lawson said he had been influenced by the efforts of the only female computer science colleague in his department toward ending the gender gap their field, and saw this research as an opportunity to contribute and learn from the psychology research. “I was eager to become more involved,” Lawson said. “I want to be part of the solution.”

The exploratory project will have three studies: an online survey already underway at Bucknell University, a laboratory experiment involving manipulating a learning environment and students’ mindsets to see how they respond, and an intervention in first-year computer science classes that incorporates virtual reality games to help encourage a mindset that computer science ability is not fixed. The second study should start by the end of this year, Hoyt said, and both the second and third studies will use Richmond students who agree to participate.

A goal for this project would be to positively affect the teaching of computer science here at Richmond and beyond, Lawson said. All three professors hope their project will have real benefits for women and education in America.

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