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STEM PUSH programs increase college-level persistence for underrepresented minority students

November 30, 2023
By: Michele Hujber

The U.S. has a STEM workforce problem, and finding diverse talent to fill existing and projected vacancies has proven to be particularly challenging. "Only about 20% of Latina/o students and 18% of Black students enroll in STEM majors, according to research published in 2019 in Educational Research. The research team, led by Catherine Riegle-Crumb at the University of Texas at Austin, also found that Latina/o and Black students switch majors at a rate of about 37% and 40%, respectively, and 20% of Latina/o STEM majors and 26% of Black STEM majors leave school without a degree.

However, some encouraging research from the STEM PUSH (Pathways for Underrepresented Students to Higher-Education) Network shows that pre-college STEM programs can effectively improve the odds of underrepresented minority students attaining and maintaining STEM careers. STEM PUSH is an Alliance/awardee of NSF's Eddie Bernice Johnson INCLUDES National Network. NSF INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) catalyzes the STEM enterprise to work collaboratively for inclusive change, resulting in a STEM workforce that reflects the population of the nation.

Pre-college STEM programs are established intensive STEM-focused out-of-school time programs that are focused on serving Black, Latina/o, Indigenous, and other high schoolers from marginalized groups through practices that center on equity and prepare students for undergraduate STEM. The STEM PUSH programs participate in a standardized structure.

“This work is largely conducted through our Networked Improvement Community and consists of 6-month cycles of program improvement efforts or collective impact efforts" said Disan Davis, PhD, research associate, admissions, accreditation, and ecosystems for STEM PUSH. “Each member of the group works around a collective theme, but each implements an individualized change."

Once a high school student is enthusiastic about pursuing a STEM career, they face the issue of gaining admission to college. This step can be challenging for Black, Latino/a, Indigenous, and other marginalized high schoolers whose school may not offer high-quality courses in STEM topics. Pre-college STEM programs are designed to help, but a student's participation in such a program does not necessarily translate into an advantage when it comes to admissions.

Davis noted, "It's often not clear to [college] admissions that students in our program spend over 100 hours learning and doing STEM. Admissions leaders may not be able to differentiate STEM-intensive equity-focused experiences like our STEM PUSH pre-college programs from pay-to-play research programs or summer camps and more generally don't consistently and systematically have a way to recognize out-of-school academic experiences."

To overcome this obstacle, STEM PUSH is working with admissions officers to educate them about the STEM PUSH Network. Earlier this year, the University of Pittsburgh's Broadening Equity in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Center (BE STEM), the parent organization of STEM PUSH, earned accreditation as a learning service provider from the Middle States Association (MSA) Commissions on Elementary and Secondary Schools.

“Accreditation of the BE STEM Center allows us to now go through an accreditation process with all interested STEM PUSH pre-college STEM programs,” Davis said. Ultimately, each program that goes through this process will be independently accredited and that accreditation will confer a status to college admissions for the students of that program.

Six STEM PUSH pre-college STEM programs are currently piloting this potential accreditation in April 2024. They are completing an accreditation self-study process that includes demonstrating how their programs meet the criteria and core competencies of STEM PUSH, demonstrating improvements their program has made so far, and outlining plans for future improvements.

“If this continues on track,” said Davis, “we expect several more programs to be accredited by November of 2024 in time for recognition through the 2024-2025 admission cycle.”

In parallel to its work with admissions officers, STEM PUSH is working with various admissions organizations including the Common App and the Coalition for College to increase the visibility of students’ out-of-school academic success in their college applications, and with organizations including College Greenlight to connect with more higher education institutions interested in students of STEM PUSH programs.

If getting admitted into a college STEM program is the first issue, staying in the program is the second. STEM PUSH programs appear to have an impact at this stage. STEM PUSH has collected National Student Clearinghouse data to track STEM PUSH pre-college STEM programs alums through their post-secondary studies.

"Preliminary data from that research from cohorts one and two show that over 80% of their Black, Latina/o, and Indigenous students with National Student Clearinghouse Records are enrolling and persisting in STEM undergraduate for at least one year," Davis said. "So, these students are already demonstrating a continued interest in STEM. And across our programs with enough data, the odds of Black, Latina/o and Indigenous participants were more than double the odds of their applicant peers to persist through more than one year in STEM in higher education.”

Organizations can email info@stempushnetwork.org to express their interest in STEM PUSH. STEM PUSH is not currently onboarding new programs but hopes to in the near future.

Meanwhile, programs can engage with STEM PUSH program learnings through their change packages, newsletters, and website.