It is well documented that STEM can feel “chilly” for undergraduate students, particularly those from underrepresented communities. Further, evidence indicates that STEM has yet to warm up: in Talking about Leaving Revisited, 52% of students who switched out of STEM cite a negative, competitive atmosphere as a major contributor to their decision to switch, up from 14% in 1997 (Seymour & Hunter, 2019).
Students who manage to overcome barriers to a STEM degree have to become “savvy navigators of the STEM higher education system” (Seymour & Hunter, 2019, p. 412). Many of these students rely on external support systems to help navigate college, such as student organizations, family, and peer social networks. Peers seem to be especially important—over half of the students who persisted in the Talking about Leaving Revisited study cited external support systems as critical to their success, with connections to peers in their major being the highest cited support.
S-STEM projects can have a meaningful impact on students by providing and contributing to a sense of community and belonging in STEM that students crave. Many of these projects have in-person meetings or seminars, which can significantly increase student’s sense of connection to one another (S-STEM REC AAAS, 2023).
In this blog, we focus on the seminar at one S-STEM project (STEM CONNECT; NSF S-STEM #1930211, PI Jim Lewis) to address two questions: (a) How do you build a S-STEM community for S-STEM Scholars that helps to break down barriers they face in STEM? (b) How do you build this community with S-STEM Scholars? This blog is the first of three focused on building and strengthening relationships and partnerships within the S-STEM community.
STEM CONNECT is a multi-institutional grant involving the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), Southeast Community College, and Western Nebraska Community College. The project employs a number of strategies to support Scholars, with seminars and peer study groups as main mechanisms to build community. For this blog, we focus on the seminars at UNL as the evolution in UNL Scholars’ reported sense of community could be directly tied to the changing focus of the seminar.
Partially due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, most early Fall 2020 seminars featured invited speakers who talked about their education and research pathways. Yet, feedback from students revealed a need for more engaging seminars and opportunities to interact with peers. Successful seminars offered opportunities for Scholars to interact with the speaker or their peers. For example, several Scholars remarked on how much they enjoyed hearing from a NASA mathematician. One Scholar explained why they found her seminar talk helpful:
It was really set up for a question-based, engaging conversation instead of just like a seminar or lecture. (Spring 2022 Focus Group)
Scholars also overwhelmingly wanted more opportunities to interact with local businesses. We responded by increasing the number of industry speakers as well as offering tours of local industries (e.g., Duncan Aviation).
However, we had not fully addressed the need for more interaction with peers. Furthermore, as the project matured, returning Scholars found some seminar content to be repetitive. For instance, some Scholars questioned the usefulness of repeat seminars focused on career preparation (e.g., writing a resume, preparing for a career fair).
While a handful of early seminars involved Scholars more directly in community building (e.g., we held a cross-institutional competition to develop a t-shirt design for STEM CONNECT) student feedback indicated that our Scholars wanted more opportunities to connect with one another.
In response, the project leaders concluded that Scholars should be encouraged and empowered to take more leadership in building the community to increase the seminar’s relevance. During the final Fall 2022 seminar, we invited Scholars to generate future seminar ideas. Before the seminar, we organized ideas shared on surveys and focus groups into “themes” and wrote these at the top of large sticky-notes which we placed around the seminar room. During the seminar, Scholars joined a small group surrounding one of these “themes” to generate more specific ideas and rate their favorite ideas. This led to two new types of seminars: a “break-in” room (similar to an escape room, except the goal is to break into a room rather than out of one) and a “choose-your-own adventure” career development activity. We also increased the number of seminars in which Scholars shared about their experiences (e.g., in research, at conferences).
New Seminar: Break-in Room
The break-in room was designed by the first author, Funk, to support Scholar bonding. Some students had shared that while they valued getting to know other Scholars in their majors, they also wanted to interact with other Scholars. As such, Scholars were placed into interdisciplinary groups and tasked with solving puzzles that leveraged different disciplinary strengths in STEM. Student feedback from the break-in room was overwhelmingly positive. One Scholar described the activity, saying:
There were many different objectives, and each one utilized a different skill that everyone at our table knew. Someone was a math major, someone was computer science or engineering, and everyone being able to work on that and solve it was really awesome.
New Seminar: “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” Career Development
The choose-your-own adventure career development seminar was designed to provide more tailored support for Scholars. Prior to this seminar, we asked Scholars to share what types of career support they needed. This led to small group sessions for mock interviews, a resume review, searching for internships, and preparing for coding interviews. Overall, Scholars appreciated a more tailored and interactive approach to career development. One Scholar who participated in the coding interviews remarked that it was helpful to “be able to walk through problems with others and see how they would solve their coding problems.” (Spring 2023 Focus Group).
We think the structure of this seminar is especially important, given that external support systems for low-income, first generation, and racially minoritized students are more effective when they adopt a tailored approach to meet individual students’ needs (Kezar et al., 2020).
In Fall 2023, the project hired three peer mentors, including Sanders, the second author, to be a peer mentor. As a peer mentor, Sanders met one-on-one with Scholars. He also took on an additional challenge of brainstorming ways to build more community among Scholars during seminars. Inspired by his experiences as a Scholar in the prior semester, Sanders developed his own interdisciplinary puzzle activity incorporating computer science, mathematics, environmental science, biology, and chemistry. Sanders found creating the seminar to be challenging but fun. During the seminar, Scholars seemed particularly invested in what Sanders had developed—at one point, Sanders asked his peers if they wanted him to narrate the elaborate scenario he crafted for them or just read it, to which his peers responded enthusiastically, “Narrate it for us!” Although Sanders expressed interest in developing a puzzle seminar activity before he was hired as a peer mentor, it was absolutely integral that Sanders was compensated for his work, just as staff and faculty are. Adequate compensation is a key component in any effort to equitably include students as partners in initiatives.
We continue to offer seminars that worked well in the past to support community bonding and peer learning, with the goal of helping to break down the barriers our Scholars face as they pursue a STEM degree. For instance, we have a regular “Navigating the College Landscape” seminar in which Scholars and seminar leaders are given space to share “insider” tips about navigating campus life. We are also seeking out better ways to build community with Scholars, both during seminars and outside of seminars (e.g., through peer mentorship). In line with our focus on community building, we encourage other S-STEM projects to share their successes and failures, so we can learn from them. Furthermore, we will happily share the break-in room activities, upon request.
Hansen, M. J., Palakal, M. J., & White, L. J. (2023). The Importance of STEM Sense of Belonging and Academic Hope in Enhancing Persistence for Low-Income, Underrepresented STEM Students. Journal for STEM Education Research, 1-26. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41979-023-00096-8
Kezar, A., Kitchen, J. A., Estes, H., Hallett, R., & Perez, R. (2023). Tailoring Programs to Best Support Low-Income, First-Generation, and Racially Minoritized College Student Success. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 25(1), 126-152. https://doi.org/10.1177/1521025120971580
Kezar, A. & Holcombe, E. (2017). Creating a Unified Community of Support: Increasing Success for Underrepresented Students in STEM. A Final Report on the CSU STEM Collaboratives Project. Pullias Center for Higher Education. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED591453
E. Seymour, A.-B. Hunter, Talking about Leaving Revisited Persistence, Relocation, and Loss in Undergraduate STEM Education (Springer International Publishing, Cham, 1st ed. 2019).
STEM Students & Their Sense of Belonging: S-STEM Programs’ Practices & Empirically Based Recommendations (S-STEM REC American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2023).