It is widely acknowledged that women and people of color are underrepresented across many STEM fields in the United States. The Roots of STEM project set out to understand this underrepresentation. We began by interviewing over 300 self-selected female and male college seniors from diverse racial backgrounds who either majored in STEM (majors), started out in a STEM major but later switched to a non-STEM major (leavers), or considered a STEM major but decided against it. The interviews included questions related to STEM course instruction, professor care, and sense of belonging (among many others).

What we found

We asked a simple question: Do you think your STEM instructors cared about you and your learning? Only 73% of majors and 57% of leavers answered “yes” to this question. Upon further analysis, we found that white women majors felt much more care from their instructors (80%) than women of color (59%). For comparison, about 75% of male majors, regardless of race, reported feeling their professors cared. We also found that students majoring in biological sciences, which have better representation of women, felt more cared for than their peers in the physical sciences. Among leavers, this disciplinary gap amounted to a nearly 40% difference!

We found that white women majors felt much more care from their instructors (80%) than women of color (59%). For comparison, about 75% of male majors, regardless of race, reported feeling their professors cared.

When asked about encounters with lecture-based and active-learning teaching approaches in their STEM courses, we found that students encountered lecture more frequently than active-learning approaches, despite active learning being the preferred style for students irrespective of gender or racial background.  We found that students encountering more active-learning approaches were also more likely to feel cared about by their STEM professors.

Those in lecture-based courses were slightly less likely to feel they belonged compared to those who reported encountering more active-learning environments. Additionally, over 40% of those who felt a lack of professor care also felt they didn’t belong in STEM.

image via Pixabay, CCBY Creative Commons

Moving forward

Many studies, often inadvertently, place the blame for underrepresentation on underrepresented populations. We see this in their recommendations that usually focus on what underrepresented students lack. This “deficit model” approach views problems through the lens of individuals’ characteristics instead of cultural systems or organizational practices in STEM departments.

If we want to change STEM representation for the better, we must address what can be changed within a system instead of placing the burden for change on underrepresented students conforming to a culture that was not necessarily designed with them in mind.

Our findings are related not solely to individuals, but also to the cultural systems of STEM departments in higher education. If we want to change STEM representation for the better, we must address what can be changed within a system (e.g. professor attitudes and teaching styles) instead of placing the burden for change on underrepresented students conforming to a culture that was not necessarily designed with them in mind.

We recommend retention efforts shift away from deficit perspectives and move towards more culture-based effort in order to increase representation in STEM. Only then, can STEM education become an equally welcoming environment for all.