Purdue's Classroom Climate Workshops, developed in 1995 to train engineering and science teaching assistants, are starting to be used by universities all over the United States in a variety of disciplines. The workshops, which use an interactive theater method of presentation, are the brainchild of Emily Wadsworth, assistant director of Women in Engineering Programs at Purdue. She developed them while looking at ways to improve retention of female engineering students.
Women have made up 22 percent of the freshman class in Purdue's Schools of Engineering since the late 1980s, but in 1993, 19 percent of the undergraduate engineering degrees earned on the West Lafayette campus were conferred on females. Wadsworth quickly focused on the front line of student contact.
"If you're having retention problems, it could be due to something that's going on in the classroom," Wadsworth explains. "We determined that if we trained teaching assistants in gender equity issues, we could improve the climate for women in our classrooms and labs."
Wadsworth had previous experience with the use of interactive theater as a training tool, and she saw it as an ideal medium for demonstrating the complexity of what happens in the classroom and the impact on female students.
"It's a good way to encourage discussion of sensitive subjects," Wadsworth says. "It involves the entire audience and allows participants to explore issues in a safe environment."
With a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Wadsworth surveyed female undergraduate and graduate students in Purdue's Schools of Engineering and Science. Their experiences, combined with documented classroom behavior across all disciplines, were used to identify critical issues of gender inequity.
"We know, for example, that male students interrupt more often and speak longer than female students," Wadsworth says. "Teachers also tend to have more eye contact with male students and call on them more frequently. Since the majority of the faculty and students in the Schools of Engineering and Science are male, many are not aware of those differences or the effect they can have on the women in their classes. We want to change that."
The Classroom Climate Workshops are the first step.
The School of Science and the School of Liberal Arts collaborated with Wadsworth's engineering staff to develop the workshops. Scripts were written based on the information and actual experiences reported in Wadsworth's earlier survey of female students, and graduate students from Purdue's Division of Theatre were enlisted as actors.
During the workshops, the performers act out three different scenarios with a facilitator leading a question-and-answer session after each scene. Participants then split into small discussion groups to talk about what they've seen and learned. So far, 550 teaching assistants have attended the workshops.
"Our post-workshop surveys show that participants are coming away with a new understanding of gender equity issues in the classroom and the importance of treating all students fairly," Wadsworth says. "The teaching assistants willingly commit to taking an action step that will promote gender equity in their classes."
Because the program is just two years old, Wadsworth has not generated enough data to accurately assess its impact on the classroom, but female students accounted for 23 percent of the undergraduate engineering degrees awarded by Purdue in 1995-96. That figure is expected to approach 25 percent when degrees are conferred after the 1997 summer session.
"The Classroom Climate Workshops are just one component of our retention activities, which also include a freshman seminar and undergraduate mentoring programs," Wadsworth explains. "It's difficult to say which element has had what degree of impact on our female students, but judging from the interest of other universities and organizations, classroom climate is a big issue."
Starting in the fall of 1998, the workshops will be offered to teaching assistants in all 10 of Purdue's academic schools, and a pilot program was made available to engineering, science and liberal arts faculty this spring.
In the meantime, Wadsworth's acting troupe has been giving command performances for Midwest colleges and universities, and at several national conferences on higher education. The workshops recently were demonstrated to faculty and teaching assistants at the University of Illinois, and at an Interactive Theater Institute at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Demand for the program has prompted Purdue to make the workshops available on video. It can be ordered through Purdue's Continuing Education Administration for $150. For more information, call 1-800-359-2968.
"Institutions of higher learning need to provide a climate where all students, regardless of their gender, will feel welcomed, respected and affirmed when interacting with teaching assistants and faculty," Wadsworth says. "If our workshops can help make that happen, then we want them to be accessible to any school that is interested."
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