“Listen up, everyone! Here is, uh, Ay-lee-nah . . . er, E-lay-nah, um, Vah-zoo. She will be joining our class. She is from some commie country in Eastern Europe.” Turning to me and pointing to a desk, the teacher continued: “you can sit there.”
This was how I was introduced to my U.S. high school science class in the 80s. As a new immigrant and political refugee, I anticipated language, cultural, and economic barriers, but I did not expect to have the very aspects of my identity rendered insignificant in just one sentence. I continued through high school and much of college yearning to be part of a community and wanting to hide my personal identity and ethnic origin. I did not belong. Though I still remember how much that introduction hurt, I also realize that those interactions significantly shaped who I am and the work I do.
Sense of belonging is a human need and a driver of many of our behaviors. My mother decided to major in chemistry because that’s what her friend was doing. Sense of belonging has been shown to be an indicator of success, including academic achievement, retention and persistence (McKinney et al., 2006; Walton and Cohen, 2011; Graham et al., 2013; Zumbrunn et al., 2014). Some students, especially those traditionally underrepresented in STEM, report that certain systemic structures undermine their sense of belonging (Means & Pine, 2017). Approaches to cultivate belonging include precollege interventions, classroom-based practices, and learning communities (Clements et al., 2022; Findley-Van Nostrand & Pollenz, 2017, Johnson, 2020). The STEM community has had difficulty moving beyond individual interventions to create systemic change.
S-STEM programs are in a unique position to make a difference by centering equity at the heart of their STEM interventions. Knowing that financial aid alone cannot increase retention and graduation, S-STEM programs adapt, implement, study, and disseminate evidence-based activities that have been effective in promoting student achievement, belonging, self-efficacy, and STEM identity.
Two equity-centered frameworks, Culturally Responsive Pedagogy (CRP) and Tara Yosso’s Community Cultural Wealth (CCW), have been shown to change the STEM educational landscape. This blog provides a case study on how they were used in the S-STEM program on which I serve as PI and ends with a conjecture as to what is needed to make them sustainable. These frameworks foster diverse individuals’ sense of belonging but also fundamentally center equity as a base for their principles.
The reasons behind the lack of representation in STEM are rooted in the STEM culture itself (McGee, 2016; Mriti, 2019; Uriarte, 2007). STEM teaching and culture assume knowledge is objective, transmittable, repeatable to everyone, and generally views students from a deficit perspective. When we follow a traditional curriculum, like our teachers before us, we do so believing that our methods ensure equity and objectivity. But by seeking objectivity, we unintentionally devalue the identities and the strengths students bring with them. Our training as scientists and researchers fools us into thinking our knowledge is universal. However, not only are these practices highly influenced by Western values, but we go on to deny the role that Western patriarchal cultures played in creating these practices, and perhaps more importantly, excuse them from being examined. Our traditions of so-called teaching excellence are the same traditions that excluded, erased, or eroded URM identities for centuries. We shouldn’t conflate the objectivity of some kinds of STEM knowledge with the objectivity with which we strive to evaluate people.
Changing an embedded culture is difficult, but changes in faculty teaching can lead to an increase in student success, belonging, STEM identity, and retention. While there have been “pockets of change,” many faculty are not reconsidering their teaching methods, due to lack of time or training or their own professional identity as scientists, which places the focus on research rather than teaching (Brownell & Tanner, 2012). Cultural barriers encountered by students likely to be participating in S-STEM programs are hard to address because of the emphasis on the so-called objectivity (Mriti, 2019), a view of learning as race-neutral (Haynes & Patton, 2019; Martin-Hanse, 2016) and a color-blind approach in interactions with students historically marginalized (Griffin, 2019). CRP and CCW break away from these practices by placing the student at the center of the learning experience and challenging the deficit perspective prevalent in STEM. These frameworks view knowledge as subjective and celebrate difference. Because they embrace the context and cultures in which learning happens, they can be leveraged to bolster the intersecting identities of S-STEM scholars to create conditions increasing their sense of belonging.
Yosso’s model of CCW (2005), explores the talents, strengths and experiences that students bring with them to their college environment in the form of six types of cultural capital: aspirational, linguistic, familial, social, navigational, and resistance. These forms of capital go unrecognized in higher education institutions established with dominant traditional values in mind. CCW is not only important in understanding how underrepresented students experience college from a strengths-based perspective, but also in recognizing that these assets enhance students’ self-efficacy, confidence, sense of belonging, and their academic success.
Culturally responsive pedagogy recognizes and integrates the cultural backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge of students into the learning process. CRP uses “the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively” (Gay, 2002, p. 106). Unlike traditional teaching, CRP learning is student-centered, and knowledge is subjective, culturally contextualized, and builds on students’ experiences, acknowledging and valuing students’ identities.
The NSF STEM Cohorts for Research and Engagement (SCoRE) (NSF S-STEM #2030890) Program, on which I serve as PI, enacts CRP through each of its STEM Program Interventions: (1) the STEM Scholars Seminar, (2) CRP Faculty Professional Development Training, and (3) CRP-Embedded Mentoring.
The STEM Scholars Seminar utilizes CRP to engage and retain students. It includes the formation of a learning community, early assessment of students’ CCW and prior experiences with STEM, and uses case studies that highlight individuals from diverse backgrounds. We observed a significant increase in sense of belonging over a one-year period and found the STEM Seminar to be essential to this outcome.
“In the seminar everyone respects everyone else. More than that, there is lots of admiration for the work others are doing, and also people are free and at ease to communicate to others about their worries and know they have people to support them always. If it was not for this community, I would have not stayed in STEM.”
-First year, first-generation college, white female scholar
“Since I have moved around a lot, finding community can be difficult but I definitely felt a sense of belonging with the STEM Seminar that surprised me.”
-Second-year, transgender first-generation, multi-race student
“Being included in the program made me realize that I found a community to where I belong . . . . I like how STEM has become an opportunity for all of the students . . .”
-Second-year, immigrant, Asian male student
The CRP Faculty Professional Development Training Series focuses on both teaching and mentoring and meets monthly. Faculty S-STEM mentors work together to revise their STEM instruction to include CRP and reflect on how to provide mentoring and instructional experiences that foster the development of scholars’ sense of belonging and STEM Identity.
CRP-Embedded Mentoring follows the principles of CRP developed in the training program. While STEM faculty have a great depth of content knowledge, they often have not been trained on how to enact effective mentoring relationships with underrepresented students (Stelter et al, 2021). Of all program interventions, CRP-embedded mentoring had the strongest correlation with students’ cumulative GPA (r(18)=.75, p = . 001). In addition, diverse students’ reflections make visible how CRP-embedded mentoring contributed to their sense of belonging and STEM identity.
“What interests me the most about having a mentor relationship is navigating some less frequently talked about. For example, sexism in the workplace or overcoming specific barriers related to being neuro-divergent. I am the first woman to go to college in my family and continuing my studies and inspiring others to go to school was not common in my family. [My mentor] gave me very personal advice and it meant a lot to me and I finally felt like someone has been in my shoes and succeeded.”
-Second-year, first-generation, non-binary, LatinX student
“Mentoring has made me more invested in my identity as a person within STEM and within the STEM community at HCC. It reminds me of what people said in the article we read about peer to peer mentoring and the effects that it had on the subject within the study; how it helped them have more of an identity in their field and feel more confident in their abilities in their field.”
– First-year, first-generation college, Latino student
When people are included in a community, they learn. So how can we best impact students’ sense of belonging? Adopting frameworks like CRP and CCW may be fundamental steps toward a solution. But, the key to reaching this outcome and to “institutional change” is through faculty development. How might my high school science introduction have been, had my teacher had training on CRP? Without professional development, the traditional practices in STEM will be hard to budge from the centuries-old throne. Long-term, sustainable commitment to faculty development, particularly in terms of CRP, can facilitate greater inclusion, sense of belonging, and equity in STEM. The question is: do institutions of higher education, and STEM departments (especially well-resourced ones), have the political will and ability to provide the necessary faculty support, and what are the ways in which S-STEM programs can help catalyze this will?
Learn more and explore additional resources.
National Science Foundation for their continued support, AAAS S-STEM REC, HCC’s S-STEM scholars, mentors, and SCoRE PIs and project team, Holyoke Community College’s many offices and individuals supporting these initiatives, as well as many of Ileana’s ongoing collaborators.
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