Reducing Racial and Gender Achievement Gaps in STEM: Use of Natural Language Processing to Understand Why Affirmation Interventions Improve Performance

  • Purdie-Vaughns, Valerie (PI)
  • Muresan, Smaranda (CoPI)
  • Cohen, Geoffrey (CoPI)
  • Cook, Jonathan Emdin (CoPI)

Project: Research project

Project Details


Addressing issues related to reducing the size of the achievement gaps in STEM disciplines among subpopulations of students is important to helping the Nation meet its 21st Century science and technology needs. Research shows that causes of achievement gaps in STEM arise from reciprocal interactions between societal, social, and environmental factors that might suppress students' true academic potential in challenging academic STEM domains. This project focuses on environmental factors (identified as social identity threats) that devalue, marginalize, or discriminate against students based on a social identity like race, gender, disability status, or socioeconomic status; such factors can eventually lead students to withdraw and disengage in STEM learning and careers. The objectives of this research are to: (1) synthesize and systematically analyze data from interventions (affirmation writing essays) shown to help reduce the impact of social identity threats on student participation in STEM; and (2) apply results of the synthesis and analyses to enhance existing interventions (e.g., maximize impact on subpopulations of students whose achiement in STEM fields is below their potential).

The research project will proceed in two phases. First, the investigators will create an encrypted online repository of data from more than 2,500 affirmation writing essays, previously collected through randomized double-blind experiments involving approximately 1,400 students who vary by race, ethnicity, age, gender, and social class. The researchers will link this online repository of information to academic and psychological outcomes for middle school and college students. Using natural language processing (NLP), topic modeling, and other methods the investigators will identify sematic content and essay structure processes that mediate affirmation effects and highlight meaning of the effectiveness of the essay writing interventions.

Results of these analyses will be used to develop and test a more robust intervention for reducing social identity threats involving African Americans, White, and female students. One hundred eighty (180) students (90 females and 90 males) will participate in two separate laboratory studies. One, conducted at Columbia University, will focus on race as a social factor; the second, conducted at Penn State University, will focus on gender. The ultimate goal of this work is to uncover and address psychological factors that might otherwise hinder students' participation in STEM careers.

Effective start/end date9/1/148/31/17


  • National Science Foundation: $1,035,994.00


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