What retention and support strategies do women students in STEM courses find most helpful? In the third year of the CalWomenTech Project, IWITTS collected 60 survey responses from female students in technology courses in which they were underrepresented at seven California community colleges to find out. This paper from the WEPAN 2010 Conference publishes results from that survey and discusses how the colleges used those results to choose which retention strategies to implement.
Milgram, D. (2010). The CalWomenTech Project: Using Surveys to Inform Retention Strategies of Female Technology Students. Conference Proceedings of 2010 NAMEPA/WEPAN 4th Joint Conference Setting Sail for the Future: Leveraging Diversity for a Stronger Crew. Austin, TX: Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN). Retrieved from http://dpubs.libraries.psu.edu/DPubS?service=Repository&version=1.0&verb=Disseminate&handle=psu.wepan/1302008445&view=body&content-type=pdf_1#
Four California community colleges in the CalWomenTech Project increased the retention rates of both female and male technology students when compared to baseline rates. These four colleges improved retention rates of their female students anywhere from 9.5% to 18.7%, and the retention of male students by 6% to 13%. Many colleges started seeing an increase in retention of both their female and male students after only one semester.
What retention strategies did the colleges use to achieve these results? Watch IWITTS Executive Director Donna Milgram discuss the strategies and results, and read on to learn more.
A major accomplishment of the CalWomenTech Project has been the improved retention of both women and men at four of the CalWomenTech community college sites, which IWITTS attributes to classroom strategies employed by instructors that have positively impacted female and male students alike. In fact, six of the seven CalWomenTech colleges that stayed with the Project through spring 2011 improved the retention of male students during the Project indicating that classroom strategies developed to help retain female students can likely also have a positive impact on male students.
Originally, IWITTS anticipated that the outcome of the CalWomenTech Project would be a comparable retention rate for women and men rather than significant increases in completion rates for both genders, so this unanticipated result has been an exciting development in the Project. All of the CalWomenTech colleges achieved a completion rate for females and males within 7% of each other in advanced courses, and four colleges had comparable male and female completion rates for introductory courses within 5% of each other. Two CalWomenTech colleges that saw some of the largest increases in female completion rates early in the Project, from 72.7% to 100% in 9 months (Evergreen Valley College) and from 81% to 100% within a year (San Diego Mesa College), also saw increases of over 20% in male retention. All of the colleges that increased female retention rates also increased male retention rates.
By the end of the CalWomenTech Project, these sites had all increased the completion rates for female and male students:
- Las Positas College went from a baseline retention rate for female students of 74.2% to an average female completion rate of 92.9% (an increase of 25.2%), while the male completion rate for the college went from a baseline of 88.2% to an aggregate of 94.2% (an increase of 6.8%). At baseline the female completion rate was 14% lower than the male completion rate -- now they are within 1.2% of each other and comparable.
- City College of San Francisco had a baseline completion rate of 64.1% for female students that went up to 86.4% -- a 34.9% increase -- after repeated focus on retention with faculty -- both full time and adjunct. By the end of the CalWomenTech Project, the retention rates for women had gone up 22.5% to an average of 78.5% and the retention rates for men had gone up 6.5%. IWITTS Executive Director Donna Milgram discusses the rate increase at CCSF in this video clip.
- Evergreen Valley College had a baseline retention rate for female students of 72.7% that went to 100% for two nonconsecutive semesters. By the end of the CalWomenTech Project, the average female completion rate was 82.5%, an increase of 13.5% from baseline. Male completion baseline was 64.5% -- also low -- and increased to 75.6% during the Project, an increase of 17.2%.
- San Diego Mesa College had a baseline retention rate for female students of 81.3% that went to 100% for two semesters and a baseline retention of 80.3% that went to 100% for males three different semesters. In the aggregate, the average female completion rate was 88.8%, an increase of 9.2% from baseline. Male completion baseline was 80.3% and the aggregate was 87.7%, an increase of 9.3%.
The IWITTS Project Model is to provide each college with WomenTech training on recruitment and retention at the beginning of the Project, exposing them to a wide menu of strategies.
The CalWomenTech Leadership Teams -- groups made up of eight to ten technology faculty members, counselors and administrators -- created an annual retention success plan. Almost all college instructors (including adjuncts) underwent retention training and in many cases the strategies were implemented in the classroom right away. During the CalWomenTech Project, the colleges completed three retention plans each, selecting on average, five broad retention strategies to implement each year.
The primary strategies in the Project -- chosen by the colleges themselves -- have been classroom strategies (e.g. appealing to female interests, a positive classroom environment, building block skills, etc.) versus traditional support strategies such as mentoring. This is the reason they have impacted the retention of both women and men. If the colleges had chosen female-only support strategies (e.g. women in technology clubs) the data would not show such a positive impact on the retention of male students.
The retention strategies implemented soon after the initial training by the colleges showing the biggest leaps in completion rates included:
- On-campus faculty trainings focusing on teaching to female learning styles, providing building block skills, ensuring female students spent equal time using the equipment in the labs, and integrating female students into the classroom.
- Revising the program's curriculum to be more female-friendly. Some changes included using more contextual examples that appeal to women, more collaborative projects, and providing additional open lab time outside of the classroom.
Survey of Female Technology Course Students
How successful were these initial strategies? IWITTS's external evaluators decided to ask the female students themselves.
Female technology students taking targeted introductory and advanced courses at seven of eight CalWomenTech community colleges were surveyed in 2009 and again in 2010 (2009 survey n=60, 2010 repeat survey n=43). These two surveys collected data on the demographics of the female students (age, ethnicity, family status, work hours, etc.) and specific CalWomenTech recruitment and retention strategies allowing the colleges to see what strategies female students had experienced, which ones they had found most helpful, and what strategies they most wanted to experience going forward. To IWITTS' knowledge, this is the first time that female students in technology courses have been surveyed on what retention strategies they have experienced in their courses and which ones they feel are most helpful.
Some highlights from the 2009 and 2010 female student survey results follow:
- The outreach materials the CalWomenTech Project developed for the colleges were reported as some of the top ways female students learned about the targeted technology programs. For example, 40% of female students from the 2010 survey learned about their program from CalWomenTech posters making posters the second most effective strategy after hearing about the program from a counselor or instructor.
- In 2009, 50% or more of the respondents reported exposure to 12 out of the 20 retention strategies. In 2010, 40% or more of the respondents reported exposure to 13 out of the 21 retention strategies.
- In 2009, 19 out of the 20 strategies were rated as helpful or very helpful by at least 63% of the female students who experienced the strategies. In 2010, 100% of the women rated 20 out of 21 strategies that they had experienced as helpful or very helpful. The remaining strategy was still rated helpful by 75% of female students.
- In 2009, the retention strategy rated as most helpful (100% of the women who experienced it rated it as helpful) and experienced by the highest number (n=49) of female students was, "Learned basic skills needed for the course during the first few weeks of a course." In 2010, that strategy tied with "The 'big idea' or theory was given before starting to learn specific concepts," which was experienced by 36 students and rated as helpful by 100% of them.
- In the 2010 survey, IWITTS added some additional questions to see if Web 2.0 tools could better meet the needs of female students. For example, students were asked, "Would you be interested in connecting with others that have similar career interests through a face-to-face or online community such as a Women in Tech Facebook page?" Over 59% of the women said yes.
- A few questions were also added to the 2010 demographics section as requested by some Project partners such as, "Are you attending college in order to switch field/career?" Over 46% of the women said yes, listing a range of previous careers—from retail to geology.
The women who took the female technology survey were a racially-diverse group, reflective of California's community college population. Over 60% of the female students surveyed in 2009 and 2010 were not of European-descent, and 20-25.4% of the students identified themselves as Hispanic. Another important result seen in the demographic section of the survey was that almost 80% of the women were working and taking technology courses at the same time with 32% working more than 40 hours a week or more.
It appears that instructors in the targeted classes implemented over half of the 20 recommended strategies in their classrooms and, after seeing the survey results, many instructors committed to making those strategies female students would most like to experience a part of their regular teaching strategies. Instructors on Leadership Teams that went over the results during a monthly conference call or strategic planning session came up with creative ways to start employing the strategies female students requested and found most helpful. One instructor from San Diego Mesa College came up with a plan to start assigning leadership roles in group projects randomly to avoid men taking the leadership role in groups more often than women (Rosser 1998), after she saw how many women wanted to try out a leadership role in class or found it helpful.
Furthermore, the survey results helped many leadership teams make more informed decisions about what retention and support strategies would be most helpful to their female students. For example, one of the colleges that put on a small get-together for female students in their technology program -- which none of the women were able to attend -- realized after seeing the survey results that their female students did not have time to attend face-to-face events and support groups outside of class. This same college took this new information into account and, as one of their retention strategies, invited a female role model to speak during the evening course that had the most female students enrolled. As this example demonstrates, a key outcome of the female student survey has been that the leadership teams at several colleges have taken the results and incorporated them into their strategic plans.
More Retention Strategies & Case Studies
For particular examples of additional retention strategies from the CalWomenTech Project, take a look at these college-specific case studies in the Proven Practices Collection:
- City College of San Francisco Case Study
- San Diego Mesa College Case Study
- Evergreen Valley College Case Study
- Las Positas College Case Study
- El Camino Open Lab Time Case Study
An important part of the CalWomenTech Project is taking the successful retention resources that worked within the Project and disseminating them to educators across the country. Here are solutions you can use to recreate the CalWomenTech Project retention strategies and success at your school:
- WomenTech Educators Training -- You can experience the same training provided to the CalWomenTech colleges by bringing IWITTS to your school or by attending the training IWITTS holds in the San Francisco Bay Area several times a year.
- Proven Practices Collection -- A collection of journal articles, case studies and other resources on proven practices in recruiting and retaining women to technology.
- Learning Library -- Links to outside sources selling tools that teach students building block skills.
- Tools of the Trades Videos -- This video set, with accompanying instructor's guide, familiarizes students with tools in six different trades.
- SciGirls Videos -- These videos and activity guides make science colorful and fun with science for girls, by girls!
The CalWomenTech Project is funded by The Program for Research on Gender in Science and Engineering from The National Science Foundation - Grant no. 0533564