Bringing underrepresented students into STEM

Tallahassee Community College programs that support diversity, equity and inclusion include the Student Leadership Retreat. (Photo: TCC)

Part of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) mission is “to recruit, retain and develop a diverse, high-performing workforce that draws from all segments of society and values fairness, diversity, and inclusion to promote the progress of science.”

The NSF’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program provides grants to STEM faculty at community colleges to develop innovative programs that support the recruitment and retention of “groups historically underrepresented in STEM in technician education programs that award associate degrees.”

At the 28th ATE Principal Investigators’ Conference, participants had the opportunity to learn from community colleges educators and the leader of a grassroots organization about the ways they blend diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives with promotion of STEM careers. Six speakers shared information about their effective practices during two conference sessions.

Start with individual greetings

When she was a math professor, Calandra Stringer, provost and vice president of academic affairs of Tallahassee Community College (TCC) in Florida, made a point of greeting students as they entered her classroom. She also invited students to visit her during office hours to work on particular math problems.

“Really making sure you understand your students and what’s relevant to them” helps bridge cultural, ethnic and economic differences, she said.

Now when she talks to students about their career interests or hobbies, or engages them in conversations about how to improve things at the college, Stringer is also listening for connections between their interests and STEM careers they may not know about. When relevant, she points students to college programs related to the topics they mention.

“It’s a long journey – it starts early,” she said.

DEI programs at TCC include its Student Leadership Retreat, the Hispanic Alliance and the Scholar Program.

Build a growth mindset

Chuck Benton, a biology professor at Madison Area Technical College (Madison College) in Wisconsin and co-coordinator of the STEM Scholars Program, explained why the WiscAMP Scholars Program focuses on developing a “growth mindset” among students and how it does it.

Madison College student surveys identified the biggest obstacles to persistence and completion among underrepresented populations as: deficits in “belongingness”; not feeling supported; and financial pressures. A factor contributing to these three issues is that students often take too many courses and work too many hours, he said.

The WiscAMP Scholars Program for STEM majors offers faculty mentoring stipends, ranging from $500 to $4,000, and life skills programs.

Stipend funds come from a Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation grant the college received from the National Science Foundation, which funds ATE programs and sponsored the ATE conference last week. The stipends “incentivize participation in the program and decrease the hours students have to work off-campus,” Benton said, explaining that this allows students to spend more time on extracurricular and co-curricular activities that help them feel more connected to the college.

Every WiscAMP Scholar is paired with a STEM faculty mentor who meets with them one-on-one twice a month to “help students develop their problem-solving skills and address challenges.” Students also meet once a semester with a faculty STEM advisor in their area of career interest to plan their schedules and transfer to baccalaureate institutions.

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As the vanguard of the “growth mindset” effort, the mentors receive reports from instructors about how their mentees are doing in their classes.

“It’s very important that students have timely feedback on their performance so they can make adjustments and they can address any challenges that they are having,” Benton said.

The mentors guide mentees’ troubleshooting and connect them with resources.

“Having students understand that their abilities are not fixed and that they can develop. If they don’t feel confident in math or in science, right, that’s not something that can’t be improved,” added Benton, who promotes this in his biology class by allowing students to take quizzes multiple times.    

Twice a month the WiscAMP Scholars interact with each other during programs on topics such as budgeting, obtaining an internship, building a personal brand, and preparing for transfer.

 “We’re trying to build a community and allow students to see themselves as part of the STEM community,” Benton said.

Of the 69 students who participated in the program from fall 2017 to spring 2020, 61% completed an associate degree and 45% transferred. See this video for an overview of the program.

Use summer programs

The Summer Intensive Program at Bergen Community College in New Jersey uses a holistic approach to ensure that teens are ready for college-level courses when they graduate from high school.

“It is important that students start where they should be in that college math course, if they are a STEM student,” said Damyen N. Davis, director of the Summer Intensive Program.

Students are eligible to begin the program after their sophomore year in high school. External funders cover the cost of tuition, books, fees and students’ meals on campus.

The seven-week summer programs move students in cohorts either through a college readiness track, if they need to take remedial math or English courses, or the SIPEDGE track, if they are ready for 101 credit courses.  Students in both tracks take the college’s three-credit student success course. It helps students identify their talents and develop strategies “to intentionally apply their talents to college,” Davis said.

Take a systemic approach

A girl builds a prosthetic hand during the College of Southern Maryland’s Engineer Like A Girl summer program prior to the pandemic. (Photo: CSM)

Maureen Murphy, president of the College of Southern Maryland (CSM), said that the Covid pandemic pointed out that the “structure of academic institutions doesn’t match the lives of its students.” She is directing the “once-in-a-generation resources” that are currently available to deal with the crisis for systemic changes that address DEI issues.

For instance, the college strategically used crisis funds to reach geographically marginalized people by adding wi-fi cafes, simulcasts of programs, and virtual reality labs for healthcare and engineering courses.

Murphy said six new start dates have been added to the academic calendar because “the traditional schedule doesn’t match the complicated lives of the people who need us most.”

She said the college will continue to support initiatives that develop a STEM “habit of mind,” which she defines as the disciplined way of thinking about problems that science education promotes. These initiatives include the Society of Black Engineers club, summer STEM camps for students as young as third grade, the Engineer Like a Girl program for high school girls, the Men of Excellence program for African-American male students, and the community makerspace within the CSM Velocity Center.

Plant STEM seeds early

One aspect of the William Tipper Thomas Foundation promotes engineering careers to middle school students of color.

William J. Thomas is an electrical engineer who works in the defense industry. He created the non-profit organization while recovering from gunshot wounds he suffered in 2004 during a mass shooting at his high school. A three-sport athlete whose injuries left him unable to walk, Thomas said the highest STEM course he took in high school was Algebra II.

When Thomas talks with middle school boys and girls, he encourages them to enroll in rigorous STEM courses in high school and become engineers.

“The beauty of having an engineering degree or an engineering certificate or the engineering mindset of problem-solving is those skills do not just apply to technical problems. They give you the right train of thought to solve any problem that you choose to set your mind to,” he said, including issues like poverty and crime.

At Baltimore City Community College, William J. “Tipper” Thomas, an electrical engineer, talks to students about “Living in your vision, not your situation.” (Photo: BCCC)

He said he tells the students, “That’s why you need to pay attention to these things because you may not be just solving a problem for the United States, you may be solving problems for grandmother, solving problems for your mother, for your best friend and their family. So that’s why these things are important because we’re dealing with real-life issues that you have to deal with, that you are going to grow into unless you do something about it. So use this valuable skill set to solve real-life, real-world, everyday problems.”

He also suggested that educators reach out to victims of spinal cord injuries to encourage them to pursue engineering careers, which is said are “viable options” for people with mobility limitations.

Instruction & service delivery

The multi-faceted equity plan of Kennedy-King College in Chicago encompasses everything from professional development on inclusive pedagogy and “high touch” instruction, to tutoring services and STEM initiatives, such as the free IT courses available at the college’s Tech LaunchPad.

The college strives to make course placement equitable, and it offers boot camps and short courses to help students complete math prerequisites for STEM degree programs. Its academic support includes individualized learning technologies, tutoring and attentive advising that connects students with wraparound, non-academic services.

“That helps us improve our connectedness. That is, instructor-to-student connectedness and students-to-campus connectedness because it’s very important to learn how to help students get more engaged to utilize the resources that are available to them,” said Jocelyn Turner, an English professor.    

A new Faculty Teaching and Learning Center is raising instructors’ awareness about research-based techniques for showing respect for diverse groups, building on students’ strengths and helping students overcome obstacles.

“We’re using more qualitative and quantitative data to peel the layers back to understand what’s happening with our students so we know how to better serve them,” Turner said.

Falechia Turman, a math professor, explained the equity focus of Tech LaunchPad’s information technology programs and facilities. “Everything right now is totally free to the students. They get free laptops, free hotspots, a great environment that they can work in. We as instructors make ourselves available for the students. We have great vendors, who work with us …  and they [the students] get to learn so many technologies in this particular program,

About the Author

Madeline Patton
is an education writer based in Ohio.