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How educators can encourage students to stay in STEM areas

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What Jen is called in engineering social identity threatNegative emotions aroused in situations where individuals feel that their valued identities are being marginalized or ignored. It raises doubts about belonging and exhausts interest, confidence and motivation. In the long run, social identity threats can cause individuals to withdraw from activities altogether.

I’m a social psychologist and the founder of the Institute of Diversity Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. For the past two decades, my research has focused on evidence-based solutions: how do we create learning and working environments that satisfy young people’s sense of belonging, instill confidence, and connect their academic and professional pursuits with purpose and meaning? I am particularly interested in the experiences of girls and women, students of color and working class students.

Connecting to the real world

With my team, I designed and tested interventions in classrooms, labs and residencies to see if they protect young people from social identity threats in science, technology, engineering and math or STEM environments. My work shows that just as a vaccine can protect and inoculate the body against a virus, characteristics of learning environments can act as “social vaccines” that protect and inoculate the mind against harmful stereotypes.

In one study, we found that when teachers emphasize the social relevance of math and connect it to social well-being, it makes a big difference for students. We followed nearly 3,000 adolescents taking eighth grade algebra and tracked their progress over an academic year. Some teachers in our study illustrated abstract concepts using socially meaningful examples. For example, exponential decay was explained by the depreciation of cars or dilution of drugs in the bloodstream. Others taught such concepts only using abstract equations.

We found that students became enthusiastic and motivated when they could apply abstract mathematics to socially meaningful problems. They got better grades, indicated that math was important to them personally, and were more active in class. We also found that students who worked in small collaborative peer groups achieved better final grades than those who worked alone. These benefits were: especially noticeable for children of color.

The importance of role models

Another inexpensive but potent “social vaccine” is to introduce young people attending a STEM college program to a fellow student who is a few years older and shares their identity.

We conducted a field experiment in which 150 freshmen women interested in engineering were randomly assigned a female peer mentor, a male peer mentor, or no mentor. Mentor relationships were limited to the mentees’ first year of college. The academic experiences of the mentors were measured each year during graduation and one year after graduation.

We found that a one-year mentoring relationship with a female peer mentor retained the emotional well-being of first-year female students, a sense of belonging in engineering, confidence, motivation to continue and ambition to pursue a postgraduate engineering degree. Women with male mentors or no mentors showed a decline on most of these metrics. Women who had female peer mentors were: significantly more likely to graduate with STEM bachelor’s degrees compared to those who had male peer mentors or no mentors. A follow-up study currently under review shows that these benefits persisted four years after the mentoring intervention ended.

A community of peers

First generation students are twice as likely to drop out of college without obtaining a bachelor’s degree than students whose parents have university degrees. My team and I combined a cocktail of ingredients to create a strong social vaccine to protect this group of young people. The participants were selected from three incoming classes of University of Massachusetts freshmen interested in biology. All were working class, and the majority were students of color.

Eligible students were invited to join a life-learning community. From the candidate pool, we randomly selected 86 students to become ‘BioPioniers’, while the remaining 63 students formed our control group with no intervention.

BioPioneer participants lived together in the same residential school. As a group, they attended introductory biology and a seminar. Participants in the no-intervention group took introductory biology in a large lecture class with the general student group. The same instructor taught both classes – the course content, teaching style, assignments, and grading system were identical for BioPioneers and the no-intervention group.

We have established authentic relationships between BioPioneers and faculty instructors and academic advisors. We also gave BioPioneers access to student mentors two years ahead of them in the same major.

The results showed that BioPioneers students developed a stronger sense of belonging in biology than students in the no-intervention group. They were more confident in their scientific ability, less anxious, and more motivated to persevere. They also got better grades for biology than the no-intervention group.

One year after the program ended, 85% of BioPioneers participants remained in biological sciences, compared to 66% of students in the no-intervention group. We also compared BioPioneers with a group of 94 honors students, mostly from middle-class and upper-middle-class families, who were in another living-learning community. We found that BioPioneers closed the achievement gap between first-generation and honors students in terms of belonging, confidence, and retention in biology majors. We are currently preparing to submit our findings to a peer-reviewed journal.

Nilanjana Dasgupta is a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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