Virtual On line
June 22, 2020
June 22, 2020
June 26, 2021
Diversity and NSF Grantees Poster Session
Undergraduate education is a formative and intellectually creative period during which students develop identities as STEM professionals capable of producing scientific knowledge and creating technological innovations. Although creativity and divergent thinking are among the key success ingredients for STEM professionals, little is known about underlying neurocognitive processing and its behavioral manifestations. The overarching goal of this NSF-funded research program (DUE IUSE-1726811) is to examine the neural and cognitive mechanisms underlying creative thinking, with a specific focus on female and male engineering students.
Although women have earned 57% of all bachelor's degrees since the late 1990s, the gender distribution is uneven across different fields (National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, 2015). For example, in 2012 women earned 70% of the U.S.'s bachelor's degrees in psychology, but only 19% of the bachelor's degrees in engineering. Nationwide, the relatively low percentage of women engineering majors has remained stable over the past 15 years, even though other STEM fields (e.g., biology, chemistry, life sciences) have seen a steady and substantial gain in the percentage of women majors (Cheryan, Ziegler, Montoya, and Jiang, 2017; Yoder, 2014). Gender gaps in STEM majors as engineering have important societal and professional implications, because these fields miss out on potential contributions of talented women and on benefits of gender diversity within organizations, including greater creativity, innovation, and collective intelligence (Cheryan et al., 2017; Page, 2007; Seymour and Hewitt, 2007; Woolley, Chabris, Pentland, Hashmi, and Malone, 2010).
Why are some STEM disciplines, such as engineering, not able to educate and graduate a higher number of women? In their review paper on differences in gender disparity across different STEM fields, Cheryan et al. (2017) identified negative stereotypes of women’s abilities as one of the two main factors associated with the social-cultural environment that contribute to the relatively low representation of women in certain STEM fields (the second factor is scarcity of relatable female role models). Moreover, undergraduate women majoring in engineering, computer science, or physics (STEM fields with the largest gender disparities) reported greater concerns about being stereotyped negatively because of their gender than women majoring in STEM fields with no or smaller gender disparities, such as biology (Cheryan et al., 2017). One persistent stereotype of women’s abilities relates to their perceived lack of creativity. Research has shown that men are perceived as being more creative than women, and individuals are more likely to associate creativity and innovative work behavior with men than with women (e.g., Luksyte, Unsworth, and Avery, 2018; Proudfoot, Kay, and Koval, 2015).
In the present research project, we investigated how creative thinking in female and male engineering students is affected by group dynamics, in particular feedback expressing negative stereotypes in the form of a stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is a self-confirming belief that one may be evaluated based on a negative stereotype. Individuals targeted by this negative stereotype feel pressure to avoid being judged in light of the stereotype and worry that they inadvertently confirm it through their performance in that domain. Specifically, a US-based longitudinal study found that experiences of stereotype threat among women made them more likely to leave engineering, science, and mathematics majors (Beasley and Fischler, 2012). In the study reported here, engineering students completed creative thinking tasks while the electrical activity of their brain was recorded using electroencephalography (EEG). Halfway the experiment, the experimenter and a male undergraduate student-assistant delivered a stereotype threat. The critical question is to what extent female and male students’ creative thinking is affected by a stereotype threat, as indexed by changes in behavioral and brain activity measures before and after the delivery of the stereotype threat.
Experiment. Twenty-seven female undergraduate students have participated so far. They were asked to generate novel ideas to common objects (Alternative Uses Task) or come up with solutions to hypothetical situations (Utopian Situation Task) while their EEG was recorded to assess task-related changes in spectral power in the alpha frequency band (e.g., Fink et al., 2007). Half of the items in both tasks related to engineering knowledge and half to general knowledge. Halfway the experiment, participants were allowed a short break, during which the experimenter and a male undergraduate student entered the testing room and performed a scripted conversation with the female participant, which had the aim of inducing a stereotype threat.
Behavioral results. The analysis of the behavioral data focused on ideational fluency (i.e., the number of generated ideas) in both the Alternative Uses Task and Utopian Situations Task, taking into account item type (engineering, non-engineering) as well as the impact of the stereotype threat by comparing idea generation pre- and post-threat implementation. A within-subject repeated measures ANOVA model (Item Type (engineering, non-engineering) × Stereotype Threat (before, after) × Task (Alternative Uses Task, Utopian Situations Task)) showed that in the Utopian Situations task, more ideas were generated for non-engineering items than for engineering items, but no such difference was obtained in the Alternative Uses Task. Importantly, the stereotype threat did not impact performance in either the Alternative Uses Task or the Utopian Situations Task.
Electrophysiological results. Based on previous studies (e.g., Fink and Benedek, 2014), we computed task-related power (TRP) changes in the lower and upper alpha band during creative ideation periods before and after the administration of stereotype threat. TRP values in the lower alpha band (8–10 Hz) and upper alpha band (10–12 Hz) were analyzed separately by means of two Repeated Measures (RM) ANOVA, with Stereotype threat (pre vs. post), Hemisphere (left vs. right) and Channel location (6 per each hemisphere: fronto-anterior left (FP1, F3, F7), fronto-anterior right (FP2, F4, F8), fronto-central left (FC1, FC5), fronto-central right (FC2, FC6), centro-temporal left (C3, T7), centro-temporal right (C4, T8), centro-parietal left (CP1, CP5), centro-parietal right (CP2, CP6), parietal left (P3, P7), parietal right (P4, P8), parieto-occipital left (PO9, O1), parieto-occipital right (PO10, O2)), as within-subject variables. The RM ANOVA in the lower alpha band revealed greater alpha event-related synchronization (ERS) in the right compared to the left hemisphere channels. Importantly, the effect of threat was also significant, with more increased alpha-ERS in the post-threat than the pre-threat. This increased alpha-ERS in the post-threat compared to the pre-threat condition occurred across all channel locations. The RM ANOVA in the upper alpha band reported similar results. There was greater ERS in the right than in the left hemisphere. Again, there was increased alpha-ERS during ideation in the post-threat relative to the pre-threat condition.
In conclusion, the behavioral findings indicate that the stereotype threat did not affect the number of ideas female students generated (i.e., ideational fluency) in the Alternative Uses Task and the Utopian Situations Task. Interesting, brain activity associated with ideation during these tasks showed an increase in task-related power (TRP) changes in the lower and upper alpha frequency bands after the delivery of the stereotype threat. Building on earlier research (e.g., Fink and Benedek, 2014) that found that EEG alpha power increases as fluency and originality of ideas generated during the Alternative Uses Task increases, the neurocognitive findings suggest that the stereotype threat boosted rather than restrained creative thinking in females.
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Jonczyk, R., & Liu, Y., & Dickson, D. S., & Okudan Kremer, G. E., & Siddique, Z., & van Hell, J. (2020, June), Does Stereotype Threat Affect Creative Thinking in Female Engineering Students? A Behavioral and Neurocognitive Study Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34478
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