ASU expands online resource for women in science, engineering

By

Maureen Roen

“There is growing evidence that having a strong mentor directly contributes to women’s persistence in doctoral programs – and this is especially so in many STEM fields where women are still far outnumbered by men,” says Arizona State University professor Bianca Bernstein. “But finding an effective and available mentor nearby can be a challenge for women graduate students in science and engineering fields.”

ASU’s CareerWISE online resilience training resource works to address this issue, with content developed to provide support and improve knowledge, skills and confidence specifically linked to student persistence.

The CareerWISE research program is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and is led by Bernstein, principal investigator and professor of counseling and counseling psychology in ASU’s College of Letters and Sciences, and Jennifer Bekki, co-principal investigator and assistant professor in ASU’s Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Proven success

“In national, randomized controlled studies, we found strong support for effectiveness on various measures that predict persistence in STEM,” Bekki says. “Furthermore, the CareerWISE online curriculum has been shown to replicate some of the positive aspects of mentoring, even amongst site visitors who only engaged with the site for a few hours.”

Articles about CareerWISE’s theoretical underpinnings and proven successes have appeared in a range of publications, including the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, Advances in Engineering Education, Journal of Career Assessment, Journal of Educational Data Mining and a special issue of New Directions in Higher Education.

CareerWISE researchers have recently made significant additions to the suite of training tools and modules on the site, featuring expanded content on the interpersonal communication skills that are especially critical to navigating difficult situations. New to the site are interactive training simulations on the interpersonal communication skills of active listening, assertive self-expression, and receiving and responding to feedback.

Integrated into the new skills-focused curricula are links to a number of the site’s original 150-plus “HerStories” – video vignettes from women at various stages of STEM careers who, through talking about their own triumphs and challenges, offer women access to many potential role models (four HerStories clips are featured on the CareerWISE home page).

Making an impact

ASU professor of mathematics Erika Camacho, who contributed insights and reflections to the HerStories collection, says that the CareerWISE site offers gems for STEM women at every stage of their career and allows their own work as mentors to be far-reaching and powerful.

“CareerWISE makes it possible for me and others to have impact in mentoring and retaining women in STEM that is beyond what we can measure,” says Camacho, whose own career in mathematics was strongly influenced by her high school math teacher, renowned educator Jaime Escalante, the subject of the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver.”

“CareerWISE has helped me mentor students – close by and hundreds of miles away – and to have a positive influence at critical points in their lives and careers. It has also allowed me to contribute in a significant way to the retention of women in math, including faculty, through a large-scale domino effect,” she says. “I have shared this site with many of my colleagues who have in turn shared it with others. They’ve used it as a resource for themselves and in preparation for panels and workshops on the retention of women in math and STEM more generally.”

Incorporated into the expanded CareerWISE site is the ability to leave confidential comments while exploring each content area.

“This feature creates a nice feedback loop for us,” says Bekki, “not only about what visitors are learning from the online resource but also about other situations that women are experiencing for which we could develop content down the road.”

The revised site also incorporates direct links to social media so that as users find especially relevant tips and guidance, they can share them with their own networks and can also contribute to discussion on the CareerWise Facebook page.

Enormous potential

During a recent focus group assembled by the CareerWISE team, women graduate students in engineering and computer science programs at ASU volunteered that the newly improved site was highly relevant to what they were experiencing as graduate students or had experienced earlier in their academic careers or in internships.

“I can definitely see myself coming back and using the site in my daily life, in all regards – especially the communication skills,” said one doctoral student participant. “I found myself wanting to read more, the more that I was in the website.”

"The CareerWISE project – the first of its kind to provide systematic training in interpersonal communication skills customized for female students in STEM – has enormous potential for influencing both academia and professional practice," says Shelly Potts, senior director for ASU’s University Office of Evaluation and Educational Effectiveness and the outside evaluator for the NSF-funded project.

Potts praised the project team’s commitment to incorporating lessons learned, user feedback and results from sound research and evaluation studies, as well as updating aspects of the website to reflect current best practices.

Next week, Bernstein and CareerWISE graduate research assistant Amy Dawson will present the session "Graduate Persistence and Psychosocial Mentoring for Women in STEM: An Online Approach for Addressing the Need" at the 2014 conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, in Washington, D.C.

“Women who enter competitive doctoral programs in the sciences, math and engineering have clearly demonstrated they have the academic capabilities and commitment to pursue STEM careers,” Bernstein says. “But our research shows that honing women’s personal and interpersonal skills can help individual women cope better with everyday discouragers and thrive within the challenging academic environment.

"CareerWISE takes an important step beyond a department’s typical emphasis in preparing technically competent students.”

Visit the CareerWISE online resource.