Abstract: Context: For many years the makeup of Engineering Foundation Year (EFY) student groups at Curtin University has been on the premise of creating diverse groups viz. 1 mature age student, 1-2 international students, and at least two females in a group of 20. In 2016 groups were arranged to achieve a minimum of 7 females in a group where possible. The rationale for the change was based on research that indicates stereotyping and discrimination is minimised in organisations that had achieved 30-35% representation of women (Kanter, 1977 in Hurtado and Ruiz, 2012). Research indicates that numbers matter because it contributes to the perception that women have the ability to succeed in engineering (Creamer, 2012). In addition, extensive "research and evaluation by the STEM education community underscore that building a critical mass matters." (Malcom and Malcom-Piqueux, 2013, 178)
Purpose: The hypothesis being tested is 'Groups with a critical mass or greater of female students create an environment that supports learning and student retention by minimising discrimination and stereotyping, and maximising female verbal participation thus engagement in the classroom.'
Approach: Classroom observations and retention data will be used to assess the influence of group gender composition on students' performance and engagement. Mixed mode research methods will be used with a variety of data collection to enable greater validity, reduce pre-existing assumptions and test the hypothesis from a number of perspectives. Observational data will be derived from the extensive work of Elizabeth Cohen and colleagues (Stanford University) on Complex Instruction. Quantitative data will be the performance and retention data of students both prior to intervention (historical data) and after intervention (post 2016 data). Qualitative data analysis will be conducted to gain more insight into the experience of female engineering students which is difficult to obtain from survey data (Creamer, 2012).
Results: It is reported that women are best supported in majority groups; "findings support the critical mass hypothesis that women are drawn to STEM fields in which they represent a majority group and suggest that gender ratios in the laboratory classroom may signal the types of foci that women adopt to ensure that certain career-related outcomes are attained." (Deemer, 2015, 67).
Conclusions: The outcome of this research will be a contribution to the teaching and learning discourse on gender. In more immediate and direct terms, the outcome will be an endorsement (or otherwise) for ongoing strategies to increase the critical mass experiences of female students (and other underrepresented students) in engineering. This could extend beyond the EFY grouping at Curtin University. Additionally the outcomes would be evidence to support gender critical mass grouping in other learning environments beyond Engineering Foundation Year.
To cite this article: Lloyd, Natalie and Szymakowski, Jolanta. Impact of creating critical mass classrooms for females [online]. In: 27th Annual Conference of the Australasian Association for Engineering Education : AAEE 2016. Lismore, NSW: Southern Cross University, 2016: 491-500.
[cited 28 May 17].