Inspired by her own experience, statistics professor Miaoyan Wang, PhD, shares how to help female students thrive in STEM subjects.
Assistant Professor of Statistics ,University of Wisconsin-Madison
PhD in Statistics, BS in Mathematics
“My goal is for education to go beyond the classroom and benefit our entire society,” says Miaoyan Wang, PhD, assistant professor of Statistics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Wang admits this is ambitious, since she interacts with only 100 or so students each year. But by sharing her strategies for recruiting—and retaining—more women in STEM courses, she hopes she can extend her impact well beyond Wisconsin.
“The disproportionate representation of women in science, technology, engineering, and math means that STEM research and policy ends up being more challenging for females,” she says. “I want to influence people’s lives beyond the boundary of the classroom by promoting gender equity in STEM.”
Wang’s strategy involves inspiring her students about academic problems and—especially for the women—also about their future careers, with stories of her own experience. She emphasizes the importance of keeping diversity in classroom, and she aims at creating an environment of comfort, trust, and mutual respect.
Here, Wang shares her best tips for encouraging students to step out of their comfort zone and pursue ambitions they may not have thought possible.
“When I look back 10 years, there were fewer females surrounding me as I pursued an academic career in math and related fields. Now, as a faculty member in a statistics department, I’m motivated to inspire more female students into the field.”
-Miaoyan Wang, PhD
Course: STAT 601 Statistical Methods I
Course description: Together with STAT 602, this course is to provide graduate students in statistics and related quantitative fields with a thorough grounding in modern statistical methods. The specific learning outcomes for the course are to understand probability concepts and models as tools for studying random phenomena and for statistical inference, to explore data by effective graphical and numerical summaries, and to evaluate methods used in real-world analysis. The course also aims at critical thinking and development of transferable skills such as reading and communication skills.
Wang’s 5 best practices for keeping women in STEM majors
Wang has found that an “ecological approach” to classroom management is best: For her, this means includes experimenting with teaching strategies, fostering a supportive environment, and taking steps to cement long-lasting personal relationships with female students. “It’s the synergy of these strategies that makes them effective,” she says.
Here are Wang’s favorite tips for helping women connect to—and stay in—STEM majors.
1. Show women how STEM subjects can connect to their career interests
“Oftentimes a science major—like statistics—is taught in a more quantitative rather than applied way,” Wang explains. “But I have found that it helps to combine the teaching of quantitative skills with real projects so that more students can build connections between what I teach and what is actually happening in the real world.”
For example, Wang’s research applies statistics to brain imaging, which has potential uses in medicine, neuroscience, and psychology. She encourages her students to follow suit, examining real-world topics that they are passionate about. “One student is looking at human-tissue gene expression data, and another is looking at social network data,” Wang says. “This kind of variety creates a vibrant learning environment.”
It also aligns with a variety of career goals. “Some are math majors, and some are applied economics majors. Some might want to work immediately in IT, while others want to go on to get a PhD,” she says. “With this project-based approach, more students find an intellectual home here.”
2. Replace the final exam with tests that make everyone unique
The final exam might be a college staple, but Wang feels it does not widen the circle of who can participate in STEM. “It can alienate some students and may not offer the opportunity for them to really show what they know,” she explains. So, instead of a final, she gives students a data set problem and asks them to write an independent report to address those questions. “This gives them the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge using the mode that is associated with their greatest strengths,” she says, noting that students can express their own interpretation and thoughts with best use of their knowledge. “When I grade the report, I pay more attention to the rationale and analysis than to the numerical conclusions.
“In my experience,” Wang continues, “people have different skill sets and backgrounds. I’d like to have everyone ‘speak out’ and use what they have learned (this could be something beyond my course), and they all have the chance to excel regardless of what approach they take.”
3. Share individual STEM stories
“As an undergraduate, I was inspired by a professor who was a fabulous teacher,” Wang says. “I saw her and thought I could be as successful as [she was]. Ultimately, being exposed to this role model led me to enter STEM.”
Wang shares this experience with her students—along with her feelings on being one of very few female math students in her class. “I take them step-by-step through my career: what I faced and how I worked through it,” Wang explains. “I do this to encourage them to talk to me about any issues, both after class and during office hours.”
Male teachers can also make a difference to help women scientists, Wang points out. “I feel so lucky that my previous advisors were good mentors. They provided fair opportunity to all group members, and they showed respect to male and female students—both actions helping to build my confidence.”
4. Welcome women into the professional community before graduation
Wang thinks that a key to the retention of women in STEM is helping them join the professional conversation in STEM-focused professional organizations and societies. “It’s so important they get connected to the larger community,” Want continues. “I prepare them for that, expose them, encourage them, and ultimately they become a part of the professional community.”
For that reason, Wang has provided mentorship that has allowed her female students to attend academic conferences and seminars. “This is a huge confidence builder,” says Wang. “It gives the students a good advantage long term, because they have early exposure to the professional community. For example, a female student of mine wasn’t sure about her career plan. I invited her to join my group discussion, supported her attendance at an academic conference, and helped her to meet with other scientists in the field. She was then convinced to further pursue a PhD.”
5. Invite female (and male) students to stay in touch—forever
Wang also tells her students that her relationship with them does not need to end when the course is over.
“After teaching them for the semester, I tell students that I’m happy to build a lifetime connection with them,” she says. “I offer research assistant positions to students who have been in my class; or if they want, they can do a summer research internship with me. If a student comes to my office hour or shows genuine interest in research, I’d like to be accessible and supportive at all stages of their careers. My success is measured by the success of my students.’’