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For Women in STEM, Schools Like Bethel Have Extra Appeal

Professor of Biology Paula Soneral was part of a group of researchers whose study proves that for women especially, class size matters to their success.

By Monique Kleinhuizen ’08, GS’16, new media strategist

July 06, 2020 | 10 a.m.

A recent study found that small class sizes, like those found at Bethel, make women feel more comfortable pursuing careers in the sciences, technology, engineering, and math.

A recent study found that small class sizes, like those found at Bethel, make women feel more comfortable pursuing careers in the sciences, technology, engineering, and math.

“Small class size” has long been a hallmark of Bethel University. At Bethel, the average undergraduate class size is 19.42, with 98.6% of classes holding less than 50 students.

It’s always been understood that smaller classes⁠—and the high-touch faculty-student teaching relationships that come with them⁠—mean stronger results for students. This past year, a study co-authored by Professor of Biology Paula Soneral⁠—and 24 other researchers⁠—proved that theory quantitatively for a growing segment of Bethel’s students: women in the sciences, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). 

Published in the summer 2019 issue of Bioscience, the study set out to figure out why there are disproportionately less women pursuing careers in STEM compared to the number going to college, and how early college experiences may impact that trend. It looked at 5,300 classroom interactions between faculty and students, asking “which attributes of the learning environment contribute to decreased female participation: abundance of in-class interactions, proportion of women in class, instructor gender, class size, and whether the course targeted lower division (first and second year) or upper division (third or fourth year) students,” it states. It confirmed that class size has the greatest negative impact on female success. 

The study included visits to STEM classrooms at Cornell, the University of Bergen in Norway, the University of Minnesota, and other private and public, faith-based and secular, large and small universities around the world. One of them was Soneral’s BIO126 Interactive Biology and Global Health course which, by design, uses high-touch active learning strategies that are common at Bethel.

Soneral explains that the course utilizes small “learning pods” where students interact in groups in response to discussion questions. There are collaborative spaces where students can write on walls made of whiteboards. “They create models, share ideas, and discuss. They experience deeper learning and more inclusivity because their voices matter,” she says. 

The classroom observers for the study gauged male and female participation, students’ reactions to “cold calling,” and the different teaching strategies used by the instructor as they determined which factors most consistently predicted female participation. The only one that mattered across the board was class size. But Soneral is quick to add that while class size matters at Bethel, there are other components of the learning environment that are key to student success for both men and women.

Professor of Biology Sara Wyse works with students in a science classroom at Bethel University.

Professor of Biology Sara Wyse works with students in a science classroom at Bethel University.

"Here, we so value each person’s story and personhood as they walk in the door. We do such an exceptional job building community at Bethel that what we see in the classroom is that students feel comfortable participating, bringing their whole selves."

— Professor of Biology Paula Soneral

And because positive learning elements are experienced early and often in a Bethel career—especially through students taking general education courses that intentionally ask them to dabble in diverse subjects interactively—students hopefully feel more free to pursue the pathways they love, without social or environmental factors swaying them. When Bethel’s new science addition was designed, for instance, prime lakeside views were set aside for entry-level science courses, so the greatest number of Bethel students would benefit. 

“Although my classroom was a data point in the study, when all is said and done, there are things we do at Bethel that are incredibly special,” Soneral says. “A study like this can’t capture everything that happens in our classrooms, but as instructors and students, we know what makes learning rich and unique here. There’s a depth and quality of mentoring and relationships that happen; the access our students have to us, to the support they need—along with the challenges we provide academically—make for such a rich environment.”

Soneral adds that along with the shift from lecturing to active learning in education, larger institutions have to be careful about how big they allow their enrollment and class sizes to grow. “They’re asking how they can be a little bit more like Bethel, honestly,” she says “We’re a role model, and what we have is so incredibly special. They’re taking things out of our playbook.”

Biology and Spanish double major Anna Swensen ’20 agrees, saying Bethel's small class sizes have been extremely valuable as she moves toward a career after graduation. “I am so thankful to have professors that are willing to meet and invest in my education so that I can have a deeper understanding of what I am learning,” she says. “At Bethel, I have been especially encouraged by the female presence in both the biology and chemistry departments. There are so many strong female role models that have shown me the importance and value of women in STEM. I have never felt out of place being a female in science courses, but I have felt empowered and feel that I belong.”

Biology and reconciliation studies double major Elle Nelson ’20 says she’s had a variety of experiences, both positive and negative, as a female in the sciences. She’s had people act openly surprised when they find out she’s a biology major. At times, she’s felt the need to prove she’s smart enough to be at the table, even among Christian peers. But through it all, she’s found tremendous support among the faculty at Bethel, especially fellow women.

"Having female mentors like Dr. Soneral has been nothing short of life-changing … they have really helped me to see my own strengths, dream big, and build overall confidence in myself. Dr. Soneral has told me her own stories and lent me immense wisdom that’s not only relevant to my biology discipline but to my life as a whole. She’s been one of my greatest cheerleaders and fiercest advocates.”

— Elle Nelson ’20

Nelson studied at Oxford in summer 2019, part of a highly selective program exploring the connection between science and faith, in part because of a recommendation letter Soneral wrote for her. Soneral’s words of encouragement to Nelson are ones that could apply to all Royals graduating virtually this spring:

“Go for it, Elle. Make it your own. I believe in you.”

 

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