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Cohorts and other strategies to help individuals from underrepresented groups graduate with STEM degrees

November 15, 2018
By: Robert Ksiazkiewicz

While diversity plays a critical role in both improving the quality and increasing the rate of innovation, women and several minority groups remain underrepresented in STEM fields. Several studies find that improving the retention rate of women and other underrepresented groups in STEM at the college level can have significant impacts on improving the diversity and representativeness of the STEM workforce. For women and other underrepresented groups, the college experience can create unique roadblocks and barriers that ultimately cause them to switch majors or even leave college. Several recent studies have examined strategies to improve the retention rate of women and other underrepresented groups in STEM degrees at institution of higher education. The strategies range from pre-college STEM academies to establishing cohorts of underrepresented students.

In Evaluating Psychosocial Mechanisms Underlying STEM Persistence in Undergraduates: Evidence of Impact from a Six-Day Pre–College Engagement STEM Academy Program, Danielle Findley-Van Nostrand and Richard Pollenz found that a weeklong pre–college engagement STEM Academy program enhances psychosocial factors that impact undergraduate persistence in STEM. Relative to a comparison group, the students that participate in such a program reported an increase in science identity and sense of belonging to STEM and to the university, all predictive of increased STEM retention. These participants also showed a 98 percent first-year retention and 92 percent STEM major retention, both of which were higher than the control group.   

In Operation STEM: Increasing Success and Improving Retention Among First-Generation and Underrepresented Minority Students in STEM, eight researchers from Cleveland State University and a researcher from Middle Tennessee State University examined the impact that Operation STEM (OpSTEM) had on the retention of students in STEM at Cleveland State University. Launched in 2012, the program’s goal was to improve STEM retention rates by helping students complete the precalculus-calculus sequence successfully. OpSTEM targets freshmen pursuing STEM majors who are members of minority groups that are underrepresented in STEM, and/or first-generation college students.

The program offered several services to participants including a two-week summer institute, mandatory supplemental instruction, project-based instruction, mentoring, STEM speakers, free summer calculus, college success workshops, social activities, and stipends based on participation in these activities and successful completion of coursework.

The researchers found that mandatory supplemental instruction alone is effective at increasing the pass rate for precalculus courses. In addition, the other services and incentives also were effective in improving the pass rates of participants. The report also found that pass rates in these courses were higher than those of a comparison group. This was especially encouraging because the OpSTEM Scholars is a population that is more at-risk than the population that comprised the comparison group.

In an NBER working paper from September 2018, Nevertheless She Persisted? Gender Peer Effects in Doctoral STEM Programs, Valerie Bostwick and Bruce Weinberg from The Ohio State University examined the effects of peer gender composition in STEM doctoral programs on persistence and degree completion. In this study, peer gender composition serves as a proxy for female-friendliness of environment. The researchers found that peer gender composition can have a significant impact on the probability of female candidates dropping out in the first year of a Ph.D. program.

The study indicates that women entering cohorts with no female peers are much less likely to graduate within six years than their male counterparts. However, as the percentage of female students in the cohort increase, the probability of on-time graduation for women increases significantly.



recent research, inclusion, stem, higher ed