Examining the Effect of Entrepreneurial Education Pedagogy on the Development of Women in STEM


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color photo of Aileen Huang-Saad
Dr. Aileen Huang-Saad
color photo of Aileen Huang-Saad
Dr. Aileen Huang-Saad

This article was originally featured in the Fall 2016 issue of Genderscapes, IRWG's annual newsletter.

Today’s engineering students must be ready to pair skill mastery and innovation and creativity, to solve real-world problems and translate their inventions into commercializable solutions, often as start-up companies. The National Academy of Engineering argues that in addition to their technical and analytical expertise, engineers “need to be flexible, resilient, creative, empathetic, and have the ability to recognize and seize opportunities.” In response, engineering colleges have begun offering technology-specific entrepreneurship training through formal academic programs such as majors, minors, and graduate degrees, as well as co-curricular activities.

In 2007, Dr. Aileen Huang-Saad co-founded U-M’s Center for Entrepreneurship in the College of Engineering, where she served first as Assistant Director, and then Associate Director of Academics until 2014. In this role, she built the initial Program in Entrepreneurship for U-M undergraduates, co-developed the Masters’ level entrepreneurship program, launched the National Science Foundation’s University of Michigan Innovation Corps (I-Corps™) Node, and created the biomedical engineering graduate design program. With both a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering, and an M.B.A., Dr. Huang-Saad is invested in bridging the disciplinary divides of science and business, and she’s determined to help students develop into 21st century problem-solvers.

Dr. Huang-Saad’s experience creating and running engineering entrepreneurship programs prompted her to contemplate how current teaching approaches might be impacting female students. “Engineering entrepreneurship education is unique,” she explains, “Not only are we teaching students about entrepreneurship, but we are teaching them how to be entrepreneurial. This can only be done through active learning pedagogies,” such as team learning, innovation pitch competitions, mentorship, flipped classrooms, and problem-based learning. These approaches can affect students differently, especially with respect to gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity and nationality.  “As I tried to investigate this hypothesis,” she recalls, “I realized that very little research is being pursued with regard to engineering entrepreneurship education and gender.  This motivated me to try and more rigorously explore this area.”

To give credence to her hypothesis that gender-based scholarship was limited, Dr. Huang-Saad set out to perform an in-depth review of contemporary research on entrepreneurship education. With support from a 2014 IRWG Faculty Seed Grant and a subsequent National Science Foundation grant, she collaborated with Julie Libarkin (Geocognition Research Lab, Michigan State University) and doctoral student Christina S. Morton (U-M Higher and Postsecondary Education). Together they embarked on a systematic literature review of entrepreneurship education research across three disciplines: engineering, business and education. In their comprehensive review of the general scholarship, they found a clear paucity of studies pertaining to gender in entrepreneurship education assessment literature. To more closely examine the existing gender-informed research, they narrowed their sample to 24 engineering entrepreneurship articles  that included the term “gender” in their titles. They then synthesized the findings and devised recommendations to guide future research on engineering entrepreneurship education through a gendered lens.

The team’s literature review uncovered a need for more theory-based, qualitative, empirical research on how women respond to current practices in engineering entrepreneurial education. While two-thirds of the articles in their sample used at least one theory to guide their research, there was little consensus about which gender-related theoretical frameworks should be applied. Multiple studies in the review demonstrated that women have lower entrepreneurial intentions than their male counterparts, implying that women perceive more barriers to starting their own businesses. There were also a few studies regarding gender-stereotypical performance in entrepreneurial settings; for example, male participants are more likely to engage in high-risk ventures and are more competitively aggressive than female entrepreneurs. “These findings,” explains Huang-Saad, “not only provide the foundation for future studies to evaluate student engagement among different races and cultures, but will also help inform faculty, staff, and administrators prioritize curriculum and programming to engage a diverse community.”

Based on their analysis of the existing scholarship, Huang-Saad and her team identified three relevant gender theories which she plans to use for subsequent research. Social Role Theory suggests that men and women may conform to sex-typical roles and behaviors within educational settings. Educators, they argue, “should consider the ways in which current pedagogical practices, such as pitch competitions and public critique influence women differently than men.” De-emphasizing competitiveness and instead focusing on the societal benefits of an innovative entrepreneurial endeavor through social entrepreneurship activities could be more appealing to female students.  Additionally, Stereotype Threat, Solo Status, and Tokenism theories serve as useful tools for understanding how women might respond to entrepreneurship education environments where they are underrepresented. They recommend incorporating visible examples of successful female entrepreneurs, inviting female guest lecturers, and assigning readings that include women’s perspectives, as ways of creating a more inclusive educational environment and reducing stereotype threat.

With support from the National Science Foundation, Dr. Huang-Saad is currently developing her own mixed methods study to explore why students engage in engineering entrepreneurship programs and how their choices differ with gender. She will analyze the data from the perspective of the three aforementioned gender theories, examining relationships between engineering entrepreneurship pedagogies and women’s engagement in entrepreneurship while in school, as well as post-graduation.

This fall, she will start a new, tenure-track position as Assistant Professor in Engineering Education Research, in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, which will allow her to pursue further engineering education research. While she hopes her work will help engineering entrepreneurship programs to attract and retain more women, her ultimate goal is even larger: to guide universities in developing effective, scalable, and accessible engineering entrepreneurship education programs that are available to diverse populations -- not just a luxury afforded to only the most well-funded universities.  

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