Study bridges STEM gender gap at early ages

In an increasingly scientific world, where technology touches everyday life, the lack of women working in STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – will only be more problematic. So, Western Psychology student Hayley Samson has decided to deal with the problem from the beginning.

“Previous research found girls tend to have more problems with spatial abilities, and it is correlated to their difficulties in studying STEM subjects,” Samson said.



As early as 3 to 5 years of age, girls experience more difficulty with spatial concepts in comparison to boys of the same age. Since early spatial skills influence later numeracy abilities, the disadvantage results in lower early math scores. This deters girls’ entrance into STEM careers early on.

But don’t lose hope, Samson explained.

At the 45th Annual Ontario Psychology Undergraduate Thesis Conference held recently at Western, Samson presented her study that looked at whether teaching intervention in spatial skills would improve performance on early math skills.

She examined the link between spatial ability and numeracy through teaching preschoolers the concept of ‘middle.’ Middle is a spatial concept that points to a specific coordinate in between two objects. It has been identified as a difficult concept for children 3 to 5 years of age, especially for girls.

To teach the concept, Samson designed an interactive workbook. The workbook contained strategies that help improve spatial abilities, including analogical learning, spatial language and gesture. In particular, gesture was effective in teaching middle.

“The use of gesture freezes up cognitive space so children deal with new tasks more effectively later on,” Samson said. “For middle, the gesture is putting one hand on one point, put the other hand on another point, and then bring the two hands together to get the middle.”

After the training, a middle search task was designed to measure the subjects’ understanding. In the task, the girl searched for hidden stickers. The stickers were always hidden in one of 15 boxes and between two landmarks. The ability to find the middle on the first search attempt was considered a successful trial.

The preliminary result was spectacular, Samson said. The success rate of finding the sticker on the first attempt increased from 20 to 100 per cent. The training session successfully taught a 3-year-old girl to accomplish a task that 5-year-olds often performed incorrectly.

Aside from that, the subject also showed improvements in the mathematical ability of evenly dividing groups of items. There was a change in strategy between the pre-test and post-test session. Instead of splitting item by item, she split the items by dividing the groups down the middle.

So, the good news is, teaching intervention in spatial ability does improve associated early math skills. However, no improvements were observed on other distantly related mathematical abilities. Improvements in a specific spatial ability do not enhance all math skills; instead, that requires the development of many more spatial abilities.

Success is achieved one step at a time, and it often starts with baby steps. Although the spatial concept middle was not a cure-all for improving girls’ early math skills, Samson’s study brought the STEM gender gap one step closer.

“I think it is important to bridge the gender gap in STEM careers. I’m trying to give girls a good foundation so they can progress in whatever field they choose. By developing methods that could help improve individuals’ spatial abilities, the research can help people with the fields they choose to pursue,” she said.

Samson has just completed her bachelor’s degree in honours specialization in Psychology. She wishes to pursue a career in School Psychology where she can diagnose learning disabilities and continue her line of research.