Abstract

Diverse classrooms offer distinct advantages over homogeneous classrooms, for example by providing a greater diversity of perspectives and opportunities. However, there is substantial underrepresentation of numerous groups throughout science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, from secondary schools through professional ranks and academia. In this piece I offer a critical analysis of three worked examples of how technology can be used to expand traditional definitions of the classroom environment. In doing so I show how technology can be used to help make STEM classrooms more expansive, equitable, and effective learning environments. First I highlight how peer-to-peer learning was used to foster knowledge of marine conservation with high school youth across Fiji and Chicago. Second I show how social media can be used to facilitate conversations in New York City after a natural disaster. Finally, I show how integrating digital and real-world learning can help a diverse group of students from the Pacific islands gain field-based STEM techniques in an extended workshop format. Taken together these examples show how digital technology could expand the fixed walls of the academy and that technology can help show students the vivid splendor of life outside the classroom.

Introduction

Despite recent gains, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classrooms face real challenges in engaging many groups of students, including first-generation college students, women, members of the Lesbian Gay Transsexual Bisexual and Queer (LGTBQ) communities, persons with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities. These challenges are compounded for individuals who experience the intersection(s) of multiple categories. These challenges manifest themselves in quantitative fashions such as lower retention rates for women and students of color (Griffith 2010), and in qualitative impacts such as microaggressions (i.e., subtle verbal, nonverbal, and/or visual insults) that create a difficult landscape within which to recruit and retain students in STEM fields (Solorzano 1998; Solorzano et al. 2000).

The chilling effect of this lack of diversity permeates higher education across multiple stages of the career path from undergraduate retention after the first semester of a STEM class (Price 2010), through tenure rates of women in STEM fields (Rhoton 2011). Moreover, while gender and race often are analyzed separately, their intersection provides real and important narrative space within which to have conversations about what it means to have a diverse classroom (Espinosa 2011).

Although hurdles to create and maintain diverse classrooms exist, those same classrooms have very real benefits for students and for teachers. For example, students engaged in classwork that structurally encourages multiracial collaboration and learning have greater civic engagement and tend to be more willing to work and think across racial lines (Gurin et al. 2004), and groups that have gender-heterogeneous members of scientists produce better and more highly cited research (Campbell et al. 2013). Similarly, having a diverse faculty is important in retaining students of color as they move through the pipeline (Griffith 2010). Put simply, academic institutions and the activities that take place within them are more engaging when there is a greater diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and opinions to engage in discussions.

In addition to in-class benefits, having diverse groups of students provides non-curricular benefits. Numerous studies have shown that stereotypes, both internal and external, are important barriers in students’ success, and that learning in diverse classrooms, from diverse faculty can help break these stereotypes down (e.g., Nosek et al. 2009; Miyake et al. 2010; Stout et al. 2011). Yoder and Mattheis (2015) have shown that LGTBQ academics of all career stages in STEM fields who were in more “welcoming” environments were more likely to be out at work, which is correlated with higher satisfaction with the workplace (Griffith and Hebl 2002). Out LGTBQ faculty can also serve as role models for LGTBQ students (Beemyn 2005). Similarly, fostering racially diverse classrooms is an important goal at all ages, for example by providing opportunities and role models in secondary education, where students begin making decisions about future STEM careers (Tyson et al. 2007; Maltese and Tai 2011).

Despite these well-documented benefits, there are real institutional and societal hindrances to increasing diversity in the classroom. High school preparation plays a critical role in determining future participation in STEM, and students from poorly performing high schools are less likely to participate in STEM fields (Tyson et al. 2007). The price of higher education can also be prohibitive, rising at 7% per year (Odland 2012), while the annual inflation rate has remained between 0.1% and 4% per year over the past 10 years (United States Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014). In addition to tuition, attendance at a university requires costs which may be not be readily apparent, such as housing, meal plans, and laboratory fees. These costs are not always included with scholarships or financial aid packages, thereby requiring students to rely heavily on loans.

The real cost of education is exacerbated by overestimations of perceived costs by students, as many poorer and/or families where neither parent attended college systematically overestimate the true price of college and in effect think they are priced out before they even have a chance to attend school (Grodsky and Jones 2007). In addition to lack of financial capital, lack of social capital plays a role in participation of first-generation and low-income students. Applying to college requires a specific vocabulary and understanding of prescribed social rituals, and students from communities with few college graduates may not have access to the necessary scripts. Yet, even when students overcome these initial barriers, once they set foot on campus they often face a suite of overt and covert institutional barriers that can serve to isolate and marginalize their participation in college environments (DeRosa and Dolby 2014).

Educational technologies (including advances in software, hardware, and cloud computing services, as well as the equitable distribution of those technologies) in the classroom provide tools, which, if properly applied, can expand learning in content, time, and space. In doing so these tools can create diverse, equitable, and engaged STEM classrooms. Technology can facilitate peer-to-peer learning, which can not only help in reducing racial and gendered stereotypes of who can participate in STEM research (Stout et al. 2011), but can also create an environment in which educational objectives are met through student-driven investigations. Incorporating technology into teaching can also give students access to educational opportunities at non-traditional class times that can increase the reach of our teaching to students who have full time jobs, non-flexible child-care obligations, or substantial commutes. Finally, technology can create virtual classrooms that can exist synchronously or asynchronously across the world. By using freely available web tools it is possible to bring in lecturers and students from outside the physical confines of a brick-and-mortar university. But what are some of the specific ways that technology can meet these goals for learning and teaching? In this essay I list three worked examples from research focused around marine ecology and conservation biology that demonstrate some of the ways that integrating technology into teaching can expand the classroom in time, space, and diversity.

Peer-to-peer learning in Chicago (Conservation Connections)

Conservation Connections was a joint program between the VOISE Academy of Chicago Public Schools, The Field Museum in Chicago, Marist Brother’s Academy of Suva, Fiji, and the Wildlife Conservation Society Fiji program. The populations of these schools were quite different. VOISE Academy is located in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, which is 85% African American with 27% of the population living below the poverty line (Clary 2011). The population of Maris Academy tends to be wealthy Fijian Nationals; its alumni have included three Fijian Prime Ministers and a Prime Minister of Tonga. The class had approximately eight students from Chicago, ranging from ages 13–18 years and approximately 15 students in Suva ranging from ages 12–18 years. This project had two complementary goals. The first goal was to augment state and national curricula with classes in marine biology and conservation. The second goal was to use digital learning tools to create an active learning environment in which students from different cultures could navigate the complexities of peer-to-peer learning. This project brought together students from the west side of Chicago and the West Pacific in an engaging, participatory, and technology-rich learning environment.

The class was simultaneously co-taught in both Chicago and Suva in early 2011, with marine biology teachers coming from the Field Museum (Chicago) and the WCS-Fiji (Suva). The class had three phases and during each of these phases technology played an integral role. The first phase, delivery of basic content, focused on exposing students to the core concepts of tropical marine ecology. This information was conveyed through students independently using game play via a virtual coral reef. This digital reef was augmented through lectures featuring real fish, either from the holdings of the Field Museum’s collections, or from the Suva fish market. Students were broken up into taxa-specific teams (e.g., Team Parrotfish, Team White Tipped Reef Shark) that had both a Chicago and a Suva component. The teams were then charged with making short videos using small digital video cameras. These videos were then uploaded onto a custom-designed, restricted-access, social-networking site and were critiqued by the members of the team from the other city. Thus, Team Parrotfish (Chicago) could upload a video featuring one aspect of parrotfish biology, and Team Parrotfish (Suva) could point out interesting facts that the Chicago parrotfish video had initially missed. The two teams then combined and edited their videos together for presentation to the entire US-based and Fiji-based class.

The second phase of this class was teaching students about threats to marine biodiversity. This phase used in-house expertise of the Field Museum and WCS-Fiji as well as experts from other regions brought in through Skype or other video services. In this way, instructors were able to leverage their personal social networks to provide an enhanced learning experience for the students from instructors not physically present in the brick-and-mortar institutions. After demonstrating mastery of the subject (as assessed through in-class evaluations and through identification of species), students took a more active role in this phase and were charged with going to their self-defined communities and identifying major environmental threats there. The Fijian students traveled to a small village downstream from Suva to interview locals about what the villagers perceived as the greatest threats to their environment. These interviews, conducted in Fijian, were translated and placed on the social networking site so that students from both schools could analyze them. Because of this collaborative working environment, this phase emphasized the connectedness of large-scale threats such as global climatic change, and, for the Chicago students, put actual faces on those who were threatened with inundation of their island.

The last phase of Conservation Connections had the students identify a tractable conservation problem, generate a solution, and enact that solution. Based on their village interviews from phase two the Suvan students identified that trash from the capitol city, Suva, was washing up on nearby downstream villages and that this was a problem for those communities. The Suvan students were able to share these recorded videos via the custom social networking site and both groups of students brainstormed a list of possible solutions. The students ultimately decided to film a public service announcement and to write letters to the editors in Fijian newspapers.

The students wrote and edited drafts of the letters, aided by a professional science writer, who participated remotely via Skype. Additionally, with the help of a wildlife videographer, the groups combined to write, direct, film, and star in a Public Service Announcement filmed in Chicago along the shore of Lake Michigan. This video was then shown in Fiji and highlighted the downstream impacts of littering. The students published letters to the editors in Fiji’s two largest newspapers and the video was shown in classrooms in the capital.

Together, the three phases of this class used digital technology to increase peer-to-peer learning with students, literally on the other side of the world. The students were able to translate their core knowledge into specific learning objectives of practical value while simultaneously learning a suite of digital skills, which are critical for future academic success in the 21st century. The class also highlighted the ability of digital technology to bring in experts from a wide variety of occupations. Given the importance of secondary school education in setting career goals and future participation in STEM fields (Maltese and Tai 2011), providing a diverse array of possibilities is critical. In short, a high school student who thinks they must choose between their love of writing and of biology may not know that a professional science writer is a viable career. If they are unaware of this possibility, how can they start to conceptualize their path toward a career that can blend both biology and writing?

Teaching in a post Superstorm Sandy New York

In October 2012 Superstorm Sandy, a category 2 hurricane made landfall in the greater New York City region. It brought with it over 7.5 in of rain, 4-m storm surges; unprecedented floods decimated lower-lying areas of the city, particularly Statin Island, Brooklyn, and lower Manhattan. The storm left 53 people dead in New York, and close to US $18 billion in estimated property damages.

At Columbia University in Upper Manhattan, classes resumed shortly after the storm ended. However, damage to bridges and public transportation systems trapped many students in affected areas and unable to attend and teachers had limited options for reaching those students. Although this would have hamstrung many classes using traditional format, which require teachers and students to be in the same classroom at the same time, one class was able to leverage two aspects of digital teaching to ensure that classes continued. First, lecture notes were uploaded to the file-sharing service Figshare (figshare.org). This generated a URL that was freely accessible by the public, yet the material was clearly attributable and had a time-stamp to help document its creation. Because of the ease of access, all students were able to download the class lecture. Second, the lecture was then presented via a series of tweets between the instructor and the class. For each slide in the lecture, three to four initial tweets were presented and students would ask questions. The public and free-form nature of Twitter (Darling et al. 2013) provided an opportunity for students to communicate among themselves as well as with the professor. Thus, using technology allowed the “backchatter” of the class to become more formalized and engaged, despite operating remotely.

In addition to providing a low-cost and technologically elegant solution to conducting education in a post-natural disaster environment, this method of teaching also had second-order benefits. The class was an introduction to graduate school seminars where they dealt with topics of interest to first-year students in the MA in Conservation Biology. This particular lecture dealt with the job market and tips for marketing students’ research and CV to increase employment opportunities. Had this class been housed entirely within a conventional classroom, the standard learning environment would have been the lecturer distributing information. However, because the class was taken outside the classroom and existed “in the wild”, participants from outside the class were able to join in. This resulted in an extended discussion with students from outside Columbia who also were interested in the topic (see the complete archive here: https://storify.com/Drew_Lab/our-class- on-jobs). Senior researchers from other universities, government and non-governmental agencies, and museums also participated, further enhancing the discussion and benefiting students. This allowed multiple participants with different nationalities, experiences, and voices were brought in front of the students, providing more diversity than the traditional single professor behind the lectern. By hosting the class on an open access, distributed platform, the discussion leveraged the experience and diversity of opinions of potential employers to give the broad student body a much richer experience and to parse the nuances of job applications in ways that a single lecturer could not do alone.

Fiji WISE

In July 2014 a team from Columbia University and the University of the South Pacific collaborated to create a workshop on marine conservation hosted in Suva, Fiji. The goal was to provide students and conservation practitioners with real-world, practical skills as well as with the theoretical grounding to place conservation actions in a broader context.

The week-long workshop, entitled Fiji Workshop on International Science Education (WISE) was structured with lectures in the morning and laboratories in the afternoon. Two of those laboratories featured low-cost digital pH and salinity meters (price approximately $25 US combined) that were provided to the workshop participants so that they could easily add measurements of water quality to their assessment of reefs. This distribution of low-cost technology was coupled with field-based training on how to use the equipment and to integrate the resulting data into larger conversations about the impacts of terrestrial-based pollution on reefs and on acidification of the ocean. The workshop also used a free statistical packages (such as EstimateS; Colwell 2013) and theoretical lectures to supply students with both the theory and practice of quantifying biodiversity. Finally, we demonstrated how open-access journals ensure that researchers in Melanesia are able to access the most recent, publications about Melanesia (e.g., Drew et al. 2012; Golden et al. 2014; Kenall et al. 2014; Hamilton et al. 2015). By providing low-cost technology and the training to use it, we were able to expand the research accessible for local conservation practitioners.

In addition to using technology and encouraging open access, perhaps the most positive feature of this program was its diversity. There were 13 students of six different nationalities (Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, New Zealand, and Germany) who ranged from senior level conservation practitioners to undergraduate students. As with Conservation Connections, this diverse group presented a variety of careers to younger students, allowing them to better conceptualize a variety of career paths. For more senior participants, working with peers from different countries within the region helped foster future collaboration and mutual learning. By structuring the laboratories with mixed groups we encouraged cross-fertilization beyond traditional barriers of gender, race, nationality, and stage of career.

Synthesis

These three worked examples highlight multiple case studies where technology expanded where, how, and who we teach. We see in Conservation Connections, how a technologically equipped class can link students on other sides of the planet together in an active and engaged fashion that produces real-world results. The technology here helped expand the space of the classroom to include fish markets and rural villages in Fiji as well as urban communities in Chicago. Moreover, because the students in Chicago came from a community that lacked access to a diverse array of STEM occupations, virtually introducing them to STEM practitioners provided them with an array of possible options toward which to work. These expansions in space and the increased awareness of occupational options also wee mirrored in teaching in a post-Sandy environment. Here, technology allowed for students to engage with content-providers other than the teacher, and thus hear a multitude of opinions from people with different genders, races, and viewpoints. While many universities are running on-line courses, this example demonstrates the flexibility gained by a traditional class when integrating technology into the curriculum. The open-access archiving of the conversation means that students, globally, will be able to access the conversation and, in theory, continue it. Finally, Fiji WISE demonstrated how a small, low-cost technological intervention can open new research doors to people from developing countries. As technological tools drop in price, and the infrastructure to support those tools becomes more robust, technology will be able to play an equalizing role in the lives of students in lower-income countries.

Despite these benefits, there are very real structural and economic challenges to using technology that warrant closer inspection. One of the most obvious major barriers is access. Recent studies have shown that poor, African-American, and rural households all have low levels of access to Internet at home (Talukdar and Gauri 2011), although technologies like Twitter do tend to support proportionally more diverse communities. Twitter has a higher rate of engagement with self-identified Black and Latino users than with White users, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Twitter users tend to be more urban than rural (Duggan et al. 2014). Without access to Internet at home, active teaching tools such as “flipped” classrooms become very difficult. Limited access also precludes teachers using on-line quizzes and other classwork as a way to provide student flexibility. We must be very careful when integrating technology into the classroom that our efforts do not cause another barrier that groups, already marginalized in STEM fields, must cross in order to participate. For Conservation Connections we had to limit our activities to in-school as the project did not have the financial support to guarantee access to the Internet by families in either community. Surprisingly, post-Sandy access to the Internet was not as limiting as was battery life because several of the student’s neighborhoods were without power. Finally, these worked examples were all with small classes (<20 students) and in trying to scale these projects up, instructors may face hurdles such as limited access to technology.

Problems associated with differential access to technology are exacerbated when working with partners in developing countries, where low-cost, readily available Internet and consistent power may not be common. Although there is evidence that the international digital divide is closing (James 2012), there is clearly more work to be done. One solution is using mobile technology, as access to mobile technology in developing countries is rapidly achieving parity with developed countries (Aker and Mbiti 2010). For example, during the 3 years since Conservation Connections ran, the infrastructure of mobile communications in Fiji has increased so that now more than 90% of the population is covered by 3 G technology. Were we running this class in 2014 we could have included the option for the interviews in the village to be live-streamed to Chicago. By conceptualizing cloud-based and mobile-based approaches to technology, educators may be better able to deliver the advantages of digital technology to a diverse international audience.

As teachers, technology encourages us to be more creative, more influential, and more mindful of the implicit and explicit impacts our words have on students, and to explore new ways to make our classrooms more diverse. By using digital tools and thinking creatively, we can increase the diversity of speakers in our class, broadening the suite of potential role models and of voices we can leverage. In turn, this diversity of voices can change class and societal perceptions as to who a person in STEM can be, broadening perspectives and improving retention of women, students of color, and first-generation students (Price 2010). Additionally, by creating peer-to-peer networks across institutions, cultures, and countries, our use of technology can help students learn to navigate and ultimately negate internal stereotypes, improving retention and enhancing performance (Miyake et al. 2010).

As science becomes more collaborative, integrative, and inter-disciplinary (Wuchty et al. 2007) we need students who are able to think across boundaries and to work with collaborators who bring different intellectual perspectives toward a project. Students who have faculty vested in their development are more likely to have positive interactions across racial lines (Saenz et al. 2007). Students that graduate understanding the diversity of experiences that contribute to STEM are uniquely positioned to translate those diverse opinions into better and more integrated science (Campbell et al. 2013).

Funding

Conservation Connections was supported by a MacArthur Digital Learning and Media challenge grant to J. Drew, M. Westneat, A. Aaronowski, and B. Sanzenbacher at the Field Museum. Fiji WISE was supported by the US State Department and the US Embassy in Suva, Fiji.

Acknowledgments

This article was presented as part of the “Leading Students and Faculty to Quantitative Biology Through Active Learning” symposium at the 2015 Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, organized by L. Miller and L. Waldrop. The manuscript was greatly improved by careful readings by E. Kline and R. A. Hufbauer.

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Author notes

From the symposium “Leading Students and Faculty to Quantitative Biology Through Active Learning” presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, January 3–7, 2015 at West Palm Beach, Florida.