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More Women Leave Engineering After Taking Calculus Than Men

The dropout rate is higher among women than men after Calculus I.

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Women Taking Calculus


How confusing really is the subject Calculus?

Confusing enough to kick women off significantly in engineering.

Jessica Ellis of Colorado State University found in a study that 1 in 6 women drop plans to continue with a sequence of calculus math courses required for engineering careers.

This is in contrast with men who have a dropout rate of 1 in 8.

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The Findings

It is identified through survey responses that it isn’t the lack of ability to proceed that women are discouraged to pursue a career in engineering, but the lack of confidence instead.

Ellis highlighted one survey question that spelled the difference between the gender: “I do not believe I understand the ideas of Calculus I well enough to take Calculus II,” wherein 32 to 35 per cent of women said yes while only 14 to 20 per cent of men agreed.

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The researcher also discovered from a group who disclosed grade information that 48% of those women who switch from engineering have an A or B grade, while 42% of the men have the same grade and yet choose to switch.

This proves that women have a confidence issue upon taking the Calculus subject.

How it Started

For many college students pursuing a career in science or engineering, one course in particular presents an early hurdle.

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Calculus, the mathematics of change and motion developed in the mid-17th century, now often serves as a wet blanket thrown atop the aspirations of modern-day 18-to-24-year-olds.

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“Across the board, Calculus I is very effective at decimating students’ confidence, interest and enjoyment of mathematics,” said Jessica Ellis, a Colorado State University researcher who’s part of a team looking to improve calculus instruction at the college level.

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Gender Imbalance of Calculus I

Speaking last month at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, her deadpan remark drew a ripple of laughter from a crowd that included mathematics faculty and instructors.

But the moment quickly passed as Ellis described a gender imbalance in outcomes after Calculus I, when about 1 in 6 women drop plans to continue with a sequence of calculus courses required for most engineering careers, compared with fewer than 1 in 8 men.

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Rather than differences in ability, Ellis said student survey responses suggest a lack of confidence among women compared with men.

She described the larger calculus research project as relevant given a looming workforce shortage in science and engineering, a concern that has also alarmed Arkansas leaders.

“We just need more students, whether they’re boys or girls, to study math and science,” said Suzanne Mitchell, executive director of the Arkansas Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Coalition, a group that is in its second year of funding workshops for women and girls interested in STEM.

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In engineering, men earned 501 bachelor’s degrees compared to 115 earned by women in 2014-15, according to state data.

Imbalances can also be seen nationally as men earn the “vast majority” of bachelor’s degrees in engineering, computer science and physics, according to a report from the National Science Board, though some fields such as the biological sciences have more women earning bachelor’s degrees than men.

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Calculus serves as a gatekeeper course for computer science as well as other STEM disciplines.

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Engr. Tam Van Loan
Technical Recruiting Manager at Vietnam Airlines. I am a mechanical engineering graduate from University of Engineering and Technology, VNU. Likes travelling, blogging and building mechanical lego stuff, Yikes! Follow me on


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