Fostering a Sense of Belonging in STEM

The myth that underrepresented students leave science because they can't keep up reflects an unwillingness to deal with the truth that it's we who must change, writes Kerstin M. Perez.

September 8, 2020
 
 
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The seismic events of recent months -- both the pandemic and national protests in response to police shootings of Black Americans -- have given faculty members an unprecedented view into our students’ lives. We have seen into family dining rooms and private bedrooms through our Zoom screens and supported students who have difficulty connecting to classes at all. We have listened to our students speak out passionately against anti-Black violence and systemic racial bias on our campuses. Both crises have highlighted how our students’ complex identities are not abandoned at our classroom doors, but directly influence their academic development.

This shift in viewpoint has been especially stark among science faculty. In department meetings and across social media, we are discussing how to engage with our students by acknowledging the distinct backdrops of their lives. We are beginning to overcome the idea that the nature of science -- with its golden talismans, objectivity and independence -- means that our students’ identities are irrelevant, and that our overwhelmingly white, male classrooms encourage all students equally.

It is urgent that we not forget the empathy of this moment. A rich body of research highlights how fostering a sense of belonging is key to allowing a diverse undergraduate population of STEM majors to flourish. As we modify our classes to accommodate our altered fall semester plans, we should use this opportunity to make belonging a vital component of course design.

In my own field of physics, just 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in the United States were awarded to women in 2017. Just 3 percent were awarded to Black students of any gender. Only 2.6 percent were awarded to Black, Hispanic or Indigenous American women. Throughout my own time as a physics student, I was frequently the only underrepresented racial or ethnic minority student, sometimes the only woman, and almost always the only Hispanic woman.

In the physics department at my university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has 79 active faculty members, I am one of roughly four professors who identify as underrepresented racial or ethnic minorities, and one of only 13 women. At award luncheons, I am constantly aware when the only other brown faces in the room are the catering staff. I reflexively scan every conference hall to count the visible women.

“Belonging” gives name to the growing tightness between my shoulders as I approach campus each day, arranging my mental armor to defend my own sense of worth. Belonging recognizes how many of us readjust our clothes and our speech to negotiate the unspoken norms of our profession, where brash confidence is confused for competence and where humility, uncertainty and collective questioning are seen as failings. It recognizes what Mia Ong calls “the challenges of conducting oneself so as to be considered thoroughly ordinary.”

The American Institute of Physics TEAM-UP report, which examines the root causes of the appalling underrepresentation of African American undergraduates in physics and astronomy, defines belonging as the feeling of being “a welcome and contributing member” of a community. Belonging is not merely an abstract concept, but is tied to how resources such as study groups, dialogue with instructors and scholarly reputation are allocated.

Research has shown that this feeling of cultural dissonance, not a lack of ability or interest, is what prompts students to leave undergraduate programs in STEM. In their seminal study of undergraduate science students across seven American higher education institutions, Elaine Seymour and Nancy Hewitt note that students’ decisions to leave the sciences were dominated by “criticisms of the practices and attitudes which define and sustain the structure and culture of STEM majors.” Specifically, students who leave fault STEM faculty teaching, advising and mentoring practices, and reject STEM faculty and graduate students as role models.

The persistent myth that underrepresented students leave science because they cannot keep up with rigorous standards reflects an unwillingness to grapple with the truth that it is we, the instructors, who must change. And once we are ready to change, we must recognize that we have tremendous power to reset the cultural norms within our classrooms and labs.

Such a change requires us to engage with experts in pedagogy, educational research and social psychology who can advise us on implementing evidence-based methods to foster belonging in classrooms. Most of us in STEM receive little to no formal guidance in teaching -- as reflected in student attrition and the 96 percent of students who leave a STEM major citing poor teaching as a motivating factor. Expert coaching can prevent us from thoughtlessly replicating the same course structures and teaching styles that pervaded our own educations but failed to produce a diverse community of scientists.

We should revise elements of our courses that reinforce the competitive, individualistic culture that is particularly harmful for students from underrepresented groups. That includes eliminating the common practice of grading on a curve, which encourages students to judge themselves based on comparison with their peers rather than objective measures of mastery. We should implement flexible assessment options that demonstrate and build mutual trust with our students. And we should provide opportunities for revision that recognize the ultimate depth of understanding, not the speed with which a skill is acquired.

Crucially, institutions must reform hiring and promotions procedures that disincentivize time spent teaching and mentoring. Fostering belonging requires focused attention to building relationships with our students, particularly in online teaching environments. Nontenured scientists cannot make the time for this work if we know that our future job security relies on research productivity above all else.

Of course, reforming undergraduate STEM classroom cultures is not sufficient to correct long-standing inequities. Higher education institutions bear a responsibility to improve recruitment of underrepresented scholars at all stages of academe -- including graduate students, researchers and instructors -- and to provide the financial and social support that allows them to thrive. In particular, institutions should recognize that the cost of creating a welcoming environment frequently falls unevenly on scholars from minoritized groups. They should compensate the faculty members engaged in this work with research resources and relief from other service duties.

This moment, although difficult, presents an opportunity to correct the long-standing practices that have excluded students from our classrooms. I have been heartened to see my own department at MIT begin tackling many of these necessary reforms.

As we enter an unprecedented academic year, each individual instructor has the power, and responsibility, to ensure belonging is a critical component of course design and pedagogy. To do otherwise not only impedes scientific progress, by excluding the talent of the majority of humanity, but also is an injustice to students who enter our classrooms trusting in the promise of education.

Bio

Kerstin M. Perez is an assistant professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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