Barnard’s über-successful Summer Research Institute (SRI) — which has offered hundreds of STEM-inspired students weeks of funded and faculty-mentored research at the College, Columbia, and institutions around New York City, since 2014 — is remarkable at creating collaboration and community. “Ketaki [Uma Krishnan ’23] and I did not know each other prior to the summer,” Ayomide Tikare ’23 explained. (As a 2021 Con Edison Research Fellow, Tikare's summer research was funded by a generous grant from Con Edison.) But after SRI, she considers them to be teammates.
“Ketaki and I generally work together on everything that we do,” Tikare said. “Because both of us have similar academic interests and inquiries, [collaborating] is like working with one large, conjoined brain.”
They each credit mentor Susan Riemer Sacks, adjunct professor of psychology and emerita professor of education, for bringing them together to work on her decades-long research on girls’ attitudes toward the sciences. Over the summer, the psychology majors adapted Sacks’ ongoing study of how children view science careers based on gender and how gender affects students’ experiences in their science classes by collecting data on students, aged 9 to 20, from the U.S., Brazil, France, India, Nigeria, Singapore, the U.K., and more.
The international study used previously researched factors — gender, confidence, occupational stereotyping, and learning environment — to examine how they influence student perceptions toward science. The pandemic limited their field research but created space for them to reach a diverse demographic from their laptops in New York City, via a three-part, online questionnaire that could be accessed and completed anywhere.
Just as the project created collaborators out of the scholars, they’ve also found a community with their mentor that lasted beyond SRI 2021. “Professor Sacks was kind enough to share her space with us, and we spent a lot of our time working together there over the summer, sending out our survey and analyzing the data we collected,” said Krishnan. They collected so much online data over the summer that they are now examining their findings as part of their independent study with Sacks.
To learn more about their project, in recognition of the Barnard Year of Science, the College’s yearlong celebration of all things STEM-related, Krishnan and Tikare share their research reflections in the Q&A below.
What inspired you to research this topic?
Ketaki Uma Krishnan: I was initially interested in Professor Sacks’ research because it reflected my interests in STEM pedagogy and adolescent psychology. I came to Barnard almost positive that I would be an astronomy major but realized after my first year that I was more interested in learning about students’ experiences in the science classroom through the lens of developmental psychology and education. I wanted to learn about the different barriers students may face when pursuing a science education, and how their gender and cultural identities, as well as their access to resources, affect their experiences. This project has been so exciting because it has given me the opportunity to explore these things while reflecting on my own experiences with science education. As I lived in India and did my schooling there, I was really interested in being able to compare the experiences of students in the U.S. to those in the cities I grew up in. I have always loved science and, through our research, want to learn how we can make holistic and comprehensive science education accessible to all students.
Ayomide Tikare: I realized that I was extremely interested in the idea of identity development and found that education plays a really important role in how our identities are constructed. I was interested in what takes place inside the classroom and what specific things push students away from or pull students toward pursuing different areas of study. Therefore, I was really intrigued by Professor Sacks’ work because of how it combines psychology and education. On a personal level, Ketaki and I often talked about how we both came into Barnard as nonpsychology majors — I planned to major in biology, Ketaki in physics. This shift from what people consider “hard sciences” to psychology illuminated our interest in stereotypes associated with science and the factors that influence student attitudes toward science.
I was also compelled to consider students outside of the U.S., because science is increasingly becoming a topic that leaders are advocating in teaching children and adolescents in industrialized nations. I was interested in discussing, observing, and making comparisons between current perceptions toward science internationally compared to those in the United States, and through Professor Sacks’ earlier research.
Did you face any significant challenges in your research?
Tikare: One significant challenge faced earlier in the summer was settling on a topic. We started the summer doing a literature review on topics in adolescent psychology, science pedagogy, and occupational stereotyping. Eventually, we decided to expand the Girls and Science study internationally but encountered the same problem when analyzing our data. We collected significant amounts of data on student identity, classroom pedagogy, school environment, and more and had trouble settling on specific data to focus on examining. There is so much data yet to be analyzed before we can accomplish our complete intersectional analysis on student internal and external perceptions of science.
Krishnan: Ayo and I also faced logistical and technical challenges during data collection and analysis. Initially, we emailed schools in India and Nigeria to distribute our survey but did not hear back due to it being the summer. We were able to work our way around this by making a flyer and sharing our survey on social media, as well as contacting individuals who were eligible to participate or who knew eligible students themselves. In our survey, we wanted students to be able to self-identify aspects of their identities, like gender and race or ethnicity. We, therefore, left these categories as write-in answers, but this led to some difficulties in categorizing the data later on during the analysis period. We also found that some students have different understandings of “science,” which brings up the challenge of how there is no universal standard for the definition of “science.” In addition, the online format of the questionnaire restricted participation to students who had access to electronic devices, which was one limitation of our study.
Why is your research important?
Krishnan: A comprehensive science education is such an empowering tool for young students — it encourages inquiry about the world around them and gives them the skills to pursue their goals. While much research has been dedicated to exploring student relationships with science and ways to increase student engagement in science disciplines and in classrooms, significant gender disparities and barriers posed to marginalized groups exist in science education. We feel it is necessary to understand the factors that contribute to these barriers in the classroom in order to make science education more accessible.
What’s next for your research?
Tikare: Our most immediate goals are to finish analyzing the data from the summer and hopefully publish our findings. Professor Sacks also has a lot of data from the last two decades of the original Girls and Science study, so we are working on drafting a scholarly article for review and journal publication for that study.
Krishnan: Additionally, this semester, as a part of our independent research, we are aiming to study the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and remote learning on students’ experiences of science learning. Right now, we are in the process of sending out a modified version of the study that includes questions about the pandemic and remote learning to students around the world.