This project will study the aspects of genetics instruction that affect students' beliefs in neurogenetic essentialism, which is implicated in lowering girls' sense of STEM abilities, feeling of belonging in STEM classes, and interest in pursuing further education in STEM fields. The goal of the project is to answer important questions about how to teach genetics at the high school level in a manner that is scientifically accurate but does not have these detrimental side effects.
Recent research suggests that learning about genetics during high school biology can lead to a belief that inherent differences in the genes and brains of men and women are the main causes of gender differences in behavior and intellectual abilities (a belief known as neurogenetic essentialism). This belief is implicated in lowering girls' sense of their own STEM abilities, their feelings of belonging in STEM classes, and their interest in pursuing further education in STEM fields. The goal of this project, led by a team of researchers at Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, the University of Texas, Austin, and New York University is to answer important questions about how to teach genetics at the high school level in a manner that is scientifically accurate, but does not have these detrimental side effects. Specifically, this new line of experimental research will identify and revise the content in common genetics instruction that promotes the belief in neurogenetic essentialism. The proposed experiments will also explore how the beliefs of peers and teachers contribute to changes in such beliefs in students. This work has further implications for how the topic of differences between men and women is addressed during high school biology education. Furthermore, the research findings will advance theory on factors that contribute to gender disparities in STEM attitudes and aspirations.
Building on preliminary evidence, this project aims to accomplish four key goals. First, the project will study which specific aspects of genetics instruction affect students' beliefs in neurogenetic essentialism. Second, the project will identify the cognitive mechanisms through which these effects occur. Third, the project will uncover the downstream effects of revised genetics instructional materials on a broad range of motivational variables relevant to STEM pursuit, such as implicit person theories, sense of belonging in STEM, and interest in this domain. Fourth, the project will explore the contextual factors (e.g., teacher and peer beliefs) that may moderate or mediate how students respond to the instructional materials. The research team will develop and iteratively refine genetics educational materialsthat teach about genetic, neurological, and behavioral variation within and between sexes, as well as the social causes of such differences. The research team will then test the effectiveness of these revised materials through two large-scale randomized control trials, one targeting students directly and one targeting students' learning via their teachers. The results of this project will produce generalizable knowledge regarding the cognitive, sociological, and educational factors that contribute to STEM gender disparities.