It is mesmerizing to observe the beautiful flora within a botanical garden. Although the soil and climate can affect which species grow, in large part, the garden’s successes are a result of the contributions of many individuals, such as arborists, horticulture specialists, landscape specialists, and other scientists, who reflect on the natural and supplemental elements needed for the living plants to flourish. When students have access to a supportive environment inside and outside of the classroom, and are equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to attain their professional and personal goals, they can become flourishing members of the wider community. In this blog, we describe how, similar to garden experts working together to support a botanical garden, educators’ intentional efforts and collaboration toward fostering a natural environment and offering supplemental resources to nurture students can contribute to students’ sense of belonging. Institutions are also encouraged to reflect on how they nurture all students to excel and self-actualize (Kaufman, 2021).
A sense of belonging is an essential human need and can change based on various factors, including institutional climate and culture, social interactions, and affective and cognitive experiences (Strayhorn, 2018; Ahn & Davis, 2020; Hansen et al., 2023). It can evolve based on feeling listened to, valued, respected, and appreciated within a community. In STEM environments, regardless of students’ intersecting identities (be it race, ethnicity, gender, disability, etc.), intentional effort must be made to foster a sense of belonging and meet the needs of diverse learners. Therefore, administrators, faculty, and staff play a vital role within the community to ensure that students’ learning trajectory within academia is adequately supported such that students can say profoundly, truthfully, and unapologetically, “I know I belong here, and I am confident that the university administrators, faculty, and staff are doing everything possible to ensure that I am here and remain here.”
Benefits of NSF S-STEM
The National Science Foundation Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (NSF S-STEM) projects are uniquely positioned to serve as models for cultivating a sense of belonging in STEM. The S-STEM program supports academically talented low-income students who are diverse learners with various experiences and abilities to pursue successful careers in STEM. The projects funded by S-STEM also exemplify sustainable, evidence-based initiatives to support students in attaining academic achievements and document strategies to foster belonging.
Nature and Nurture in STEM environments
In a natural STEM environment, students are typically provided with a program of study that outlines the courses they should take and a tentative timeline to completion, which academic advisors monitor. Based on students’ performance in gateway courses (such as Calculus and Introduction to Chemistry), they often decide whether to remain in STEM. Those who do remain often take specialized courses with faculty and develop relationships with their peers in the program. Additionally, most universities offer academic support services, extracurricular activities, opportunities for professional engagement via clinical and research experiences, and health care services to support the students’ mental and physical well-being. Having STEM programs and support services work collaboratively rather than in silos could increase the likelihood that students take advantage of the support available and are positively impacted (Wekrkamp et al., 2023). For instance, a first-time-in-college student may need help knowing where to go or who to ask for help, given that they are learning to navigate new terrain. Anticipating these needs, faculty might advertise these resources during class; departments could arrange booths of organizations and entities that promote students’ success at the start of the semester and provide a pamphlet of student-facing offices. The welcoming initiatives should embrace differences and illustrate a collaborative commitment toward advancing the institution’s goals and promoting students’ success.
In addition to providing a natural environment, nurturing students is essential in cultivating a sense of belonging. From the first day that students visit the campus, the signage and images they see and the rhetoric they hear ought to reinforce the narrative that they belong. Showcasing students’ work and stories across campus and within STEM departments, be it on bulletin boards, posters, and newsletters, allows students to see themselves as active contributors to the knowledge generated within the university setting. The STEM departments can also host monthly colloquiums or quarterly symposiums for undergraduate and graduate students to share their work and learn from each other. Furthermore, hosting cultural events that highlight food, art, language, and cultures worldwide allows students to share aspects of themselves, develop relationships, and reflect on factors that contribute to the positionalities of others. Thus, opportunities to build relationships and positively highlight students can contribute to students developing a sense of belonging.
For instance, at the University of South Florida (USF) Center for Partnerships for Arts-Integrated Teaching (PAInT), students investigated sustainable approaches for promoting empathetic-ecological humanity with the support of USF faculty and a local environmental artist (David Skaggs). Exploring their roles as community scientists, students analyzed their contributions to marine pollution. The integration of art in STEM developed students’ content knowledge. It encouraged students to express themselves creatively, collaborate with peers, and engage in diverse forms of artistic expression, which reflected an inclusive environment where all students’ unique talents and perspectives are acknowledged and celebrated (Ghanbari, 2015).
Mentorship is vital in nurturing students and developing a sense of belonging; thus, it ought to be supported by STEM programs. Different types of mentorship can be employed within a STEM setting, such as peer, formal, informal, and group mentoring (Mullen & Kilmaitis, 2021). STEM programs can be instrumental in helping to identify and train individuals to serve as mentors so that they can provide adequate support to help address students’ needs and retention rates. Moreover, given that mentorship from an advisor is perceived as one of the most important factors affecting persistence, particularly for doctoral students, it is dire that advisors receive guidance on how to support students academically and holistically (Bouhrira & Cruz, 2021). With appropriate mentorship, students can be further motivated to achieve their goals, complete their degree programs, and pursue STEM careers.
Moreover, embedding inclusive and equitable evidence-based teaching practices in the natural STEM learning environment can contribute to all students’ voices being heard and feeling that they belong. Faculty may encourage students to use small group collaborations to process ideas with a partner and work collaboratively on an open-ended problem. Moreover, research suggests that when faculty attends to formative and summative assessments with evidence-based pedagogical practices, students are more likely to focus on learning rather than solely on grades, reflect on how they can improve their quality of work, and persist (Black & Wiliam, 2018).
Additionally, professional development can support STEM programs in enacting inclusive and equitable-based teaching. For example, USF’s Inclusive and Equitable Pedagogy Program encourages faculty and staff to reflect on and develop their pedagogical practices through courses, learning communities, and workshops. This professional development encourages faculty to consider how they might promote accessibility, representation, and students’ mental well-being.
In closing, fostering a sense of belonging in STEM learning environments requires an intentional effort to create a conducive environment where all students can succeed, much like cultivating the luxuriant growth of plants in a botanical garden. A systemic approach is needed to meet students’ needs and make all students feel like they belong. Acknowledging the natural STEM environments and implementing strategies to nurture students can increase students’ likelihood of developing a sense of belonging.
Ahn, M. Y., & Davis, H. H. (2020). Four domains of students’ sense of belonging to university. Studies in Higher Education, 45(3), 622-634.
Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2018). Classroom assessment and pedagogy. Assessment in education: Principles, policy & practice, 25(6), 551-575.
Bouhrira, N., & Cruz, J. M. (2021, October). System Factors Affecting Underrepresented Minorities in Doctoral Programs in Engineering: A Literature Review. In 2021 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE) (pp. 1-4). IEEE.
Ghanbari, S. (2015). Learning across disciplines: A collective case study of two university programs that integrate the arts with STEM. International Journal of Education & the Arts, 16(7).
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.
Kaufman, S. B. (2021). Transcend: The new science of self-actualization. Penguin
Mullen, C. A., & Klimaitis, C. C. (2021). Defining mentoring: a literature review of issues, types, and applications. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1483(1), 19-35.
Strayhorn, T. L. (2018). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. Routledge.
Wekrkamp, S. E., Geary, M., & Campbell, J. (2023). Retention beyond progression: Efforts of a student life office to holistically support students. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 87(8), 100478. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajpe.2023.100478