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Why Students Join, Leave STEM

Published: December 19, 2016

Students underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) classes join—or drop out—for many reasons. However, a students’ background can influence which motivators are the strongest, a conclusion reached in a recent article co-authored by an interdisciplinary team of CSULB scholars in the journal CBE-Life Sciences Education.

The article, based on research funded by a $1.1 million National Science Foundation (NSF) Research on Education and Learning (REAL) grant, was co-authored by psychology’s Gino Galvez, Matthew Jackson and Isidro Landa, plus chemistry/biochemistry’s Paul Buonora and San Diego State’s (SDSU) Dustin Thoman, a past member of the CSULB faculty who serves as principal investigator. The REAL grant was awarded to Thoman, Buonora and Galvez in 2014. When Thoman departed for SDSU, a subaward was created for the project data to be collected at CSULB and for which Galvez is principal investigator. Their article was part of a special issue on encouraging more diversity in STEM fields published by the American Society for Cell Biology.

Students have several resources such as the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) and the Center for Evaluation and Educational Effectiveness (CEEE).

“I will note that, as a big believer in growth mindset training, which I practice it with my RISE Fellows, I have seen very positive feedback on it as an intervention with those students when the CEEE did focus group interviews with the RISE Fellows,” said Kris Slowinski, Associate Dean for Academic Programs, Evaluation and Advising in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

There are as many motives for taking introductory science courses as there are undergraduates. Yet, based on a survey of 249 freshmen from both underrepresented minority (URM) and well represented backgrounds, the authors found that some motives were more important to some groups than others. Among first-generation URM college students, those who came in with a strong belief that science could be used to help their communities were more likely to see themselves as potential scientists over time. Prior research has found African-American and Hispanic students can be discouraged from studying subjects like science by learning environments that don’t share their values.

Maintaining a belief that careers in science will help them meet community-oriented goals may work to buffer that threat, the researchers said.

“Students from all groups were highly motivated by traditional science values, such as curiosity and passion for discovery,” said Buonora. “But this ‘prosocial’ outlook was also a prime motivator for URM first-generation students’ desire to pursue science careers. We feel that undergraduate science educators ought to pay attention to culturally connected career motives within URM communities to make science matter to them.”

Retention is an issue, said Galvez, who joined psychology in 2015.

“Nationally, URM students who initially pursue STEM degrees are about 40 percent less likely to complete their degrees than their white and Asian-American counterparts,” he said. “They either drop out completely or transition to other degree programs and leave the STEM fields.”

Community commitment is fundamental. “The key is the motivation for URM students to pursue STEM degrees in order to give back to their communities,” he said. “What the study uncovered was risks when URM students do not see a strong connection between pursuing a STEM degree and giving back to their community. Those who do not have that belief don’t show the same gains over the semester.”

Researchers were surprised by the degree of career direction some students received.

“The parents of Asian-American students suggested career paths,” Buonora said. “That means that URM motivations for STEM classes could include family and cultural pressures to pursue a particular degree. We heard more from other communities about general motivations such as ‘my parents want me to do well.’”

NSF Research Fellow and adjunct faculty member Jackson believes some of the report’s most significant conclusions stress the moderating factor of being a first-generation university student while being a URM student.

“I was surprised by the contrasting motivations of first-generation and continuing-generation students,” he said. “I want to look further at how intersecting identities help us understand the combination of factors that really motivate URM students.”

It comes as no surprise to Galvez, as a psychologist, that a link exists between environment and what a student studies.

“Sometimes the STEM class environment has the reputation of being chilly towards students of color,” he said. “I feel CSULB is doing a lot to address that. Faculty training will go a long way toward addressing that, too.”

Buonora feels CSULB is a useful site to study this particular topic. “There is more than ethnic and racial diversity at CSULB,” he said. “There also is a large population of first-generation students. That enables us to study how they differ from continuing-generation students. That is critically important.”

The co-authors hope their article makes a difference in the lives of URM students.

“I hope people come away from this article better understanding the motivation for URM students to give back to the community by pursuing STEM degrees,” said Galvez. “If we can draw attention to the idea that there is overlap between URM students cultural interests of giving back to their communities and their degree programs, that would be a win-win situation for everyone.”

Jackson hopes the paper finds a place on academic reading lists. “I hope educators and support staff who work with them read this article,” he said. “I hope they organize assignments around the idea of giving back. It is always easy to talk to students about that idea.”

When Buonora thinks about the paper, he asks himself, where does it take us next?

“It makes me want to know more,” he said. “And I hope readers will come away wanting to know more. I want educators who read this to ask how they can apply what they learned to their classroom and to help students to support them in achieving their dreams and goals.”