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To Make STEM Inclusive, Students Need to Feel They Belong

Milgrom-Elcott: Introductory courses should be gateways into the STEM professions, not elimination rounds in an imagined cutthroat competition

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The debate over the firing of NYU organic chemistry Prof. Maitland Jones Jr. misses the point: It’s neither that his tests were too hard nor that his Gen Z students were too entitled. It’s that introductory courses should be gateways into the STEM professions, especially for students underrepresented in these areas, not elimination rounds in a cutthroat competition in an imagined world of scarcity.

The pandemic has accelerated a workforce crisis in the STEM fields and a persistent gap in science, technology, engineering and math education. Across industries, the demand for college graduates in STEM outpaces supply. Yet millions of potential professionals from diverse backgrounds are not being tapped. In 2017, while Black, Latino and Native American students comprised 34% of prospective college STEM majors, only 18% of them actually earned a STEM degree. 

The probability that a STEM-focused white male student who receives a C or better in all introductory courses will earn a degree in the field is 48%. But for a similar Black male student, the chances are 31%, while Black female students have just a 28% chance. Yet, there is little correlation between those introductory grades and career success or job performance. That early C has no bearing on how good a doctor a student will become. And when it comes to innovators, high grades are actually inversely correlated to success: As grades go down, invention goes up.

To increase the number of women and students of color who will become the country’s next generation of doctors, engineers, and epidemiologists, educators need to listen to what they really need — and why they drop out of STEM majors at rates disproportionate to their white male counterparts. A new study called the unCommission — through which 600 diverse young people shared their experiences — identifies one key ingredient that can either keep students in STEM courses or push them out: a sense of belonging. 

Samantha Guerro, who attended high school in Texas, shared her experience with STEM courses through the unCommission story collection project, powered by Beyond100K (formerly 100Kin10). “I think a really important part of this spark of interest was the teacher,” Guerro said. “They’re excited to actually teach others, and they want to make you understand.”

Guerro’s love of science was nurtured by her Advanced Placement chemistry teacher, who made it “so that you can feel like this is something you can do. It’s not something reserved for only the elites of academia.” 

That sense of belonging and connection fueled Guerro to persist in STEM through high school. It’s no different in college. Belonging is correlated to persevering in STEM. And persevering past that first bad grade can make the difference between success and failure.

Most anyone who’s taken an introductory STEM course knows that one of the first things students hear, whether that course is calculus, computer science, or organic chemistry: “Look to your left, look to your right; only one of you will be here by the end of the semester.” 

Such a mindset is not only outdated; it’s likely to replicate the very inequities and shortages the STEM sector is trying so hard to address. Instead of aiming to weed out students, introductory courses should be designed to create as many pathways to success as possible. By creating classes that prioritize nurturing a sense of belonging for students — especially those who might be the first in their family to study STEM — schools won’t have to choose between high expectations and high success rates.

The field has many bright spots to learn from. The University of Texas at Austin, for example, has focused on fostering belonging as the centerpiece of its wildly successful effort to help first-generation college students graduate. First-generation college-goers at UT Austin earn their degrees at a rate of nearly 65%, compared with a national average of 27%. The hallmarks of the program are small classes, peer mentors, tutoring, engaged faculty advisers and community-building. But little things also help: older students record short videos about times they doubted themselves and felt alone, and how they persevered, which reinforces the message that students belong and can succeed. 

In Massachusetts, mandatory schoolwide study groups at Bridgewater State University not only increased student success in introductory STEM courses, but overall retention in STEM majors. Xavier University in New Orleans, which graduates more Black students who major in biology and chemistry and go on to become doctors than any other university in the country, uses early quizzes to flag students who need support into tutoring and study groups and encourages peers to help those who need to catch up. University of Maryland, Baltimore County, created an elite program for high-performing students aspiring to STEM careers, primarily kids of color, with high expectations and a strong sense of community.

The common denominator across all these efforts: belonging.

The U.S. Department of Education’s new initiative to modernize STEM education spotlights this very connection between rigor and belonging. Called YOU Belong in STEM, its aim is that all students, no matter their background, get a world-class STEM education to prepare them and the country for the future. To get to that future, students first need to know that they belong and can succeed in STEM.

In no other major is the goal of college introductory courses to scare passionate students away. Why are STEM courses so different? If all students are helped to persevere; if they feel they belong in STEM, whatever their background; if they understand that their unique experiences are essential in bringing forth unique contributions to the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, who knows what inventions, cures and breakthroughs await.

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