Engaging underrepresented students in research – a success story

How can we engage traditionally underrepresented students in the “higher education” experience? As Dr. Catherine Chan argues in this blog post, we need high-impact educational practices like the faculty mentored “Research Assistantships” at UW-Whitewater.


The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater is one of thirteen comprehensive campuses within the University of Wisconsin System. It is located in the southeast region of Wisconsin and largely draws students from around the region.  About 15% of our student population belongs to one or more ethnic minority groups, close to 50% are first-generation students, and over 21% of students come from low-income households.  Our campus and indeed the entire University of Wisconsin System have signed onto the LEAP (Liberal Education, America’s Promise) initiative, and improving Inclusive Excellence is of paramount importance on our campus.  It is certainly something I strive towards as a STEM faculty member and mentor.  My experience is that while individual efforts are important, collaborating with others with similar goals and taking advantage of existing institutional infrastructures are essential.

My experience is that while individual efforts are important, collaborating with others with similar goals and taking advantage of existing institutional infrastructures are essential.

One strategy our campus has used to engage students traditionally under-served in higher education is through various high-impact educational practices.  Towards this end, we have made an intentional effort to involve students in undergraduate research early in their college careers, with a specific emphasis on students from groups underrepresented in higher education, through the Research Apprenticeship Program.  I collaborate with the program closely in my efforts to increase and sustain diversity in my lab, department, and discipline.

Recruiting student researchers through the Research Apprenticeship Program.  Many of these students develop into independent researchers and student leaders.
Recruiting student researchers through the Research Apprenticeship Program.  Many of these students develop into independent researchers and student leaders.

The Research Apprenticeship Program is an academic year, paid research assistantship program that primarily serves beginning (first- and second-year) and newly transferred students at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.  Students are matched with research mentors based on mutual interests, and research skills exploration and peer mentor support are integral to the program.  The program makes targeted recruitment of students traditionally underserved in higher education, e.g., underrepresented minorities, first-generation students, students from low-income households, a priority.  We work closely with our student support service colleagues to take advantage of opportunities for interaction with and therefore, recruitment of, these students.  For instance, the program collaborates with staff in the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Student Success and other programs/grants that support student success (e.g., Wisconsin Alliance on Minority Participation) to disseminate benefits and information on undergraduate research to incoming multicultural students.  We also make special presentations to freshman orientation classes with a high concentration of said targeted student groups (e.g., campus classes with students in developmental Math are traditionally overrepresented in underrepresented minorities).  Developing and maintaining close working relationships with relevant campus units and colleagues is beneficial to all, and it facilitates a more integral and effective approach to student support services.

…we have made an intentional effort to involve students in undergraduate research early in their college careers, with a specific emphasis on students from groups underrepresented in higher education, through the Research Apprenticeship Program

Leveraging resources from other programs to provide a full-range of support and professional development opportunities for students.  Funding from the Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation was used to take students to attend a professional conference.
Leveraging resources from other programs to provide a full-range of support and professional development opportunities for students.  Funding from the Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation was used to take students to attend a professional conference.

Since its inception in 2011, the Research Apprenticeship Program has seen tremendous growth and success.  It now serves more than 70 students each year, and draws students from all four undergraduate colleges.  Importantly, an analysis of the demographics of student participants-to-date shows great participation from those belonging to ethnic minority groups (~36%), first-generation status (~46%), and low-income backgrounds (~43%).  We believe that our success is, in a large part, attributed to the relationships we have built with colleagues who work with targeted student populations and students in early cohorts of the program.  Colleagues in our student support service units help spread the message and benefits of early engagement, and word of mouth from students and their mentors in earlier cohorts help convince other students the merit of joining the program.  Although we cannot establish a causal relationship between participation in the Research Apprenticeship Program and student success, our data show students in the program have higher first year GPA and retention rates.  The program won the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents Diversity Award in 2015 for its impact on educational equity towards underrepresented minority students.

jessica_bruce jackson
Providing additional role models/mentors to students, especially multicultural students, through guest speakers.  Dr. Bruce Jackson from MassBay Community College visited campus and interacted with students.

I have personally recruited students from the Research Apprenticeship Program, including a number of multicultural students, into my research lab and have found the experience very rewarding.  Working with the program lessens the burden of student recruitment for me and once personal/working relationships are established with existing students, word of mouth helps sustain the momentum of recruitment.  This ensures a steady flux of high quality and motivated research students in my lab with built-in peer support.  I appreciate the assistance the Research Apprenticeship Program provides in basic research skills training (e.g., information literacy) and ethics.  The program also provides professional development opportunities for students, such as conference attendance/presentations and

science-williams
Student success story, co-authoring a journal article with mentor: http://www.uww.edu/news/archive/2015-12-science. Celebrating these achievements publicly is important for increasing and maintaining students’ interest and persistence in the sciences.

seminars/workshops by guest speakers (many of whom are scientists of underrepresented backgrounds), that are difficult to manage on my own.  These other experiences help my students develop their own professional network and support, as well as provide additional potential mentors/role models that share similar backgrounds as themselves.  I take advantage of the diverse students the program helps recruit into my lab, and assist them in developing into independent scientists and good role models for other students.  Many of my research students have graduate school aspirations.

My students from the Research Apprenticeship Program have had positive impacts on the learning environments in my lab and beyond, and help put “Inclusive Excellence” into practice.

My students from the Research Apprenticeship Program have had positive impacts on the learning environments in my lab and beyond, and help put “Inclusive Excellence” into practice.  They also make me a better and more effective mentor as I continuously learn to improve on engaging and mentoring students from all backgrounds.

 

~  Dr. Catherine Chan is an Associate Professor of Biological Science and Chemistry and the Director for the Undergraduate Research Program at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Dr. Chan’s lab uses the model terrestrial plant, Arabidopsis thaliana, as an experimental system to answer two guiding research questions: 1) How does calcium signaling work? 2) What are the effects of high-volume pharmaceutical and personal care products on the environment?

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