Persisting in STEM – how one institution met the needs of underserved students

The undergraduate research community and the academic community at large has recognized the importance of promoting diversity and inclusion in our programs.  However, no simple solution exists for doing this within the existing frameworks of our institutions and leveraging external resources to augment existing resources.  In this post, Dr. Catherine Chan and Dr. Juk Bhattacharyya give an example of how faculty and program administrators at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (UW-W) used a combination of institutional and external resources to provide an array of opportunities for underserved student populations to support their persistence and success in STEM disciplines.


Undergraduate research is a proven educational high-impact practice and can significantly improve student academic outcomes, especially for those from underserved backgrounds, such as students from ethnic minority groups, first-generation students, and those from low-income backgrounds.  The Research Apprenticeship Program (RAP) at UW-W focuses on providing beginning students with little or no previous research experience with mentored research opportunities.  They are recruited as paid research assistants for staff/faculty members with defined research agenda.  This program has been highly successful in getting students from underserved backgrounds to participate in undergraduate research.  header8_rapWe have been able to document improvements in student retention rates as well as their developing a sense of belonging and identity through participation in RAP.  However, despite evidence of such success, we notice that often students are unaware of various other important considerations, such as:  the marketable skills they develop from participating in research, the networking opportunities available to them, and how research experience can help them develop their career goals and establish their career after graduation.  To address these issues, we seek funding to provide additional support to underserved student groups who are interested in, or already engaged in, undergraduate research.

We have been able to document improvements in student retention rates as well as their developing a sense of belonging and identity through…participating in research… However, despite evidence of such success, we notice that often students are unaware of… how research experience can help them develop their career goals and establish their career after graduation.

wiscamp-logo-wordcloudWe obtained a sub-award from the Wisconsin Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (WiscAMP) in 2015 for encouraging URM students to consider and maintain majoring in STEM fields by providing them with professional development opportunities.  WiscAMP, funded by the Louse Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program of the National Science Foundation, aims to increase retention of underrepresented minority (URM) students pursuing degrees in STEM disciplines.  Support from WiscAMP provided us with resources to recruit and retain student researchers from diverse populations.  We also coordinated with our Office of Student Diversity, Engagement and Success to reach out to WiscAMP-eligible students (African-American, Hispanic/Latino/a, Native American, Native Hawaiian, Native Alaskan, Native Pacific Islander students pursuing a STEM degree), and invited them to various events sponsored by WiscAMP.  Suchlogo events included interacting with off-campus speakers about careers in STEM fields, participating and/or presenting at Louis Stokes Midwest Center for Excellence (LSMCE) Annual conferences, visiting business and other agencies who recruit STEM graduates, etc.   Additionally, every year since January 2017, we offered a three-day Winter Research Institute for those students to improve their research skills and foster a sense of community.  The Institute recruited participants at different stages of their undergraduate career with varying levels of research experience.

We obtained a sub-award..for encouraging URM students to consider and maintain majoring in STEM fields by providing them with professional development opportunities…every year since January 2017, we offered a three-day Winter Research Institute for those students to improve their research skills and foster a sense of community.

The Winter Research Institute

The Winter Research Institute was co-sponsored by Science Academy, an initiative funded by the University of Wisconsin System for engaging underserved students.

Developing research skills in workshops

With the combined resources from WiscAMP and Science Academy, we supported faculty and staff from different disciplines to collaborate on leading workshops.  This aspect of the Institute let students see how professors from different STEM disciplines use very similar skills, such as data analyses, graphical visualization of research data, communicating research in the form of lab reports, etc.  We invited librarians to lead sessions on formulating research questions, conducting literature searches, identifying reliable primary courses, etc.  We also included experienced undergraduate researchers to act as peer mentors during the Institute. Participating students were also invited to act as peer mentors and role models for other students who are beginning their STEM careers.

This aspect of the Institute let students see how professors from different STEM disciplines use very similar skills, such as data analyses, graphical visualization of research data, communicating research in the form of lab reports, etc.

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McNair Scholar and UW-Whitewater senior Jazmin Wilson talks with other presenters at Undergraduate Research Day.

Overall, the Institute This portion of the Institute was generally very well-received.  Select student comments include:

“… you gave a lot of (advise) the past couple days and it really helped.  Also the fact that you guys understand that we (freshman/ sophomores) are not that experienced so the help you give is helpful as well as not overwhelming.”

“…I learned how to be a leader. I learned how the research institute benefits me for my RAP project and future undergrad projects and my career. I realized how this program helps me. Scholarship opportunities and summer research opportunities”

Addressing stereotype threat

As part of the Institute, we conducted a session on addressing stereotype threats and implicit bias in STEM disciplines.  Students participated in focus groups led by two social psychologists on barriers and challenges they may have encountered in STEM courses, and provided their perceptions on how to reduce the opportunity gap.   We received IRB approval for conducting the focus group .

As part of the Institute, we conducted a session on addressing stereotype threats and implicit bias in STEM disciplines.  Students participated in focus groups led by two social psychologists on barriers and challenges they may have encountered in STEM courses

Students appreciated the sessions with the social psychologists on stereotype threats and implicit bias, identify coping strategies for those, and a chance to provide feedback to faculty about how to create a more inclusive environment in the STEM classrooms.  They also overwhelmingly wanted to participate in workshops addressing stereotype threat and similar topics in future.  One student commented, “I learned some very interesting things in this last session of this camp. I’ve met many different people that help me understand what the processes is like as you go on and further your education”

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LaVar Charleston, assistant vice chancellor of student diversity, engagement and success, addresses his first Undergraduate Research Day.

Networking for a future career

We invited campus leaders, such as the Dean of Students, an Assistant Vice Chancellor and local business owners and entrepreneurs as lunch hour speakers to talk about the importance of networking, potential STEM careers and internship opportunities where their research skills can set them apart from other candidates.  On the last day of the three-day Institute, we included UW-Whitewater alumni who are pursuing post-baccalaureate degrees in STEM disciplines as panelists.  Feedback received included:

“This was a good experience to listen to past gradates and to be able to ask them questions”

Student comment: “…I really enjoyed this session because it went further than research and what you know and more about the importance of how you’re able to portray yourself as a professional.”

Students reflect on outcomes

Seventeen students participated in January 2017, the first time the Institute was offered, and twenty-one students, including three students from the 2017 cohort, participated during the second time in January 2018.  One of those students who wanted to repeat their experience said,

“…I want to participate in the Winter Research Institute again for many reasons. I made new friends and I built on some relationships that I already had with my peers. I also met with, and was able to build relationships with, professors that I will have to take classes with in the future. Not only did I make new connections, I also learned a lot about the opportunities I have as a STEM major. Before the Winter Research Institute, I did not know much about research experiences for undergraduates like REUs, RAP or URP. The Winter Research Institute has given me a lot and I believe that this year will provide me with even more opportunities and learning experiences.”

This and similar comments made by students show that they appreciated the sense of community created by such events, and the chance to informally interact with their professors.

“…Thank you for your initiative to continuing intervention into undergraduates’ lives. When (Professor X) left I felt as if the faculty connection was lacking but the program gave me hope. The program gives hope, inspire[ation], and encouragement for undergraduates to continue in majors that are perceived as challenging.”

Lessons Learned

We have learned a few lessons from this experience.  One important lesson is that students are actually eager to have some agency in the programs and supports that are intended for them.  They are thrilled to have the opportunity to provide feedback and assist in program development.  Students also value the interactions and opportunities to network with their fellow undergraduate researchers and staff/faculty members outside of their immediate research program. These relationships seem to help build the resiliency that STEM students, especially those from traditionally underserved backgrounds, need to thrive in their college careers and beyond.  To provide more comprehensive and systematic support for these students, it is also often necessary to creatively combine different resources and funding streams and, hence, strategic partnerships with both internal and external constituencies are essential.

 


Catherine Chan is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Biological Sciences and Chemistry, and serving as the Director of the Undergraduate Research Program. She is a CUR Councilor from the Chemistry Division.

Prajukti Bhattacharyya is a Professor in the Department of Geography, Geology and Environmental Science, and a previous coordinator of the Research Apprenticeship Program.  She is a CUR Councilor from the At-Large Division.

 

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