By Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, Elizabeth Stearns, Martha Cecilia Bottia, Katherine Rainey, Melissa Dancy, Stephanie Moller, DeeDee Allen & Jason Giersch (Click here to view the entire PDF)
The research described in this essay was made possible through grants to the authors from the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. Send all correspondence regarding this essay to Professor Mickelson.
There is widespread agreement that the nation’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce is inadequate for current openings in key sectors of the economy and projected labor force needs. Moreover, the current STEM workforce is not representative of the U.S. population’s gender and demographic mix. Most STEM workers are disproportionately men whose families came from Europe, the Indian subcontinent, or Pacific Rim Asian nations. Women and African Americans, Latinx, Native Americans, and descendants of southeast Asian immigrants are underrepresented in the STEM workforce. People from these ethnic groups are often referred to as underrepresented minorities (URM).
This problem is serious for several reasons. Even though STEM jobs are not a silver bullet capable of solving our society’s myriad problems, science, engineering, and technology jobs tend to pay well, offer desirable career pathways, and provide opportunities for greater social power to those who work in them. Thus, the demographic skew in the workforce toward Whites and men has implications for social mobility, and economic, gender, racial, and social justice. Our nation’s STEM infrastructure is impoverished by virtue of the missing talent from the would-be scientists, engineers, and computer scientists who are women and people of color.
Unfortunately, we cannot rely on our universities’ STEM programs to adequately address the problem in the foreseeable future because a similar disproportionality exists to a large degree in current undergraduate STEM program enrollments and graduation rates. The notable exception is biology, which currently enrolls more undergraduate women than men.
To understand the sources of the disproportionality problem, it is critical to acknowledge that the decision to major in STEM involves multiple processes unfolding over time, beginning well before an undergraduate steps foot on a campus. The choice to major in STEM begins when children’s interest in science is sparked either by their family, community, or elementary school. Primary schools must nurture this spark. Secondary schools must continue to inspire and nurture students’ interests while preparing them for college. Specifically, high schools must offer youth the opportunities to enroll in rigorous mathematics and science taught by passionate educators instructing in their fields of expertise. Research indicates that while many youths have informal family, community, and K-12 school experiences that spark, nurture, and prepare them for college STEM majors, too often students’ race, gender, and social class predict their opportunities to learn, with lower-income URM youth having fewer of these critical experiences.
Once students arrive in college, their interests, skills, aptitudes, and socioeconomic backgrounds intersect with their university’s array of opportunities to learn STEM. The cultural climate and organizational structure of STEM departments, along with the content of courses and how they are taught, together create conditions for STEM success in college. College students encounter an array of structural and cultural forces that foster or impede their progress toward a degree. Our study, which we summarize in the next section, identifies forces that operate as barriers for females and URM youth as well as practices that can augment their degree attainment.
The Roots of Race, Class, and Gender Disproportionalities in STEM
The Roots of STEM Project is a multi-method study that investigates how individual, family, and institutional factors interactively influence students’ decisions to pursue STEM as a major. Our study’s conceptual framework proposes that the underrepresentation of women and underserved minorities in STEM fields is generated over time by student characteristics interacting with their experiences in secondary and post-secondary schools. This accumulation of advantages or disadvantages reflects social structural, school organizational, and cultural processes intersecting with individual students’ strengths, interests, and opportunities to learn in and out of school.
We conducted our research in multiple phases. The first phase began in 2010 with the creation of a large longitudinal dataset we named the NC Roots of STEM. The North Carolina Education Research Center compiled it for us from data provided by the University of North Carolina (UNC) System Office, the NC Department of Public Instruction, and the College Board. This dataset follows the entire cohort of the 2004 public high school graduating class who enrolled at any campus in the UNC-system in the fall of that year. Each undergraduate’s administrative records from middle school, through high school, and into their university provided the indicators for this dataset (N= 21,200). In 2015, we added the administrative records from members of the 2004 high school graduating class who first attended community college and then transferred to a UNC campus (N=4,000).
Another phase of the project began in 2013 when we conducted in-depth interviews with 316 seniors enrolled in one of the 16 campuses of the UNC-system. Interviews helped us to better understand students’ STEM experiences in secondary school and college. In 2015, we interviewed 120 students interested in STEM enrolled in a NC community college, and planning to transfer to four-year colleges. In 2018, we conducted follow-up interviews with these same community college students and a small additional sample of students who successfully transferred from community colleges to four-year university campuses.
Together, our mixed-method study offers insights into racialized and gendered pathways during childhood and adolescence that lead students toward preparing to study STEM before college and once they matriculate, graduating with STEM degrees (majors) or switching to non-STEM majors (leavers). We identify the experiences they had in their homes, schools, and communities before college; and the structural arrangements and cultural climates that either fostered or impeded their STEM success once they arrived in college. The next sections present our key findings.
Experiences Contributing to STEM Preparation
High School Opportunities and Experiences
Drawing upon the detailed administrative data in our Roots of STEM dataset, we examined how secondary school experiences intersected with student backgrounds. Our quantitative analyses suggest that opportunities to learn math and science are necessary but not sufficient for STEM success.
- Forming an intention to major in STEM during high school is a critically important predictor of the probability of actually majoring in STEM.
- Availability of more STEM-related co-curricular and extracurricular experiences increases student interest in STEM, which then increases students’ odds of choosing a STEM major.
- Students who take high-level math and science courses are more likely to choose STEM majors in college.
- Taking physics during high school is positively associated with students’ choice of most college STEM majors, especially for women.
- A focus on accountability through standardized testing as currently practiced in NC secondary schools undermines the broader learning and teaching process. For students from lower-performing high schools (typically segregated minority, high poverty schools), test preparation often narrows curricula by focusing on “facts” that will appear on standardized tests and distorts teaching practices toward “drill and kill” rather than developing higher-order thinking skills.
Together these distortions leave these students less prepared for college STEM success.
Secondary Schools’ Racial and SES Composition
The characteristics of secondary schools themselves are essential to STEM success but opportunities to learn math and science during secondary school are not equitably available. The scope of the math and science sequences, the availability of STEM Advanced Placement courses, and the distribution of highly qualified teachers with expertise and certification in science and math varies with demographic composition of the school’s student body. Secondary schools with high concentrations of low socioeconomic status (SES) and URM students are the least likely to offer full math and science course sequences taught by teachers who are highly qualified in the subjects they teach. Our Roots of STEM results show that:
- High schools with STEM-focused programs attract students who are highly interested in math and science. But once self-selection and family SES are controlled, graduates of specialized STEM high schools are no more likely to major in STEM than are graduates of other high schools.
- Opportunities to learn math and science are unequally distributed across high schools by racial or SES composition. For example, NC high schools are allowed to offer either physics or chemistry and not necessarily both. Nationally, students attending low-poverty high schools are more likely to take physics than youth attending high-poverty high schools. This limits the STEM preparatory experiences of students in high poverty schools.
- Low-SES and high-SES students experience differences in opportunities to learn in high schools that cause their pathways into STEM to be differentially limited or enhanced. Sometimes this occurs even within the same high schools due to tracking.
- Exposure to racial segregation during secondary education at both the school-level and classroom-level (tracking) negatively affects students’ college freshman grade point average, especially low-income and URM students.
- Attending racially isolated White high schools depresses all students’ likelihood of majoring in STEM.
- Any student who attends a sequence of racially diverse middle schools, high schools, community colleges, and universities is more likely to major in STEM than comparable peers who attend a sequence of either segregated white or segregated minority schools.
Teacher Characteristics, Student Demographics, and STEM Preparation
The centrality of highly qualified teachers to secondary school preparation for college STEM success is evident in both the Roots of STEM administrative data and the hundreds of interviews we conducted. Our findings about teachers reveal that:
- Schools with the greatest proportion of teachers designated as highly qualified (certified, teaching in their field of certification, experienced) also have the highest concentration of White students.
- Latinx students identify teachers as important influences in their college major choice more than members of other racial/ethnic groups do.
- Latinx students are more likely to major in STEM during college if they were educated in high schools where they studied with teachers who worked in collaborative professional communities, and in schools where teachers had a high level of satisfaction with their jobs.
- Credentialed, experienced, knowledgeable, and passionate high school chemistry teachers are positively associated with choices to major in chemistry.
- The proportion of female math and science teachers at a particular high school has a positive effect on female students’ likelihood of declaring and graduating with a STEM degree, yet it has no impact on male students’ STEM outcomes. The positive effects of greater proportions of female STEM teachers are strongest for White women and female students with the highest math skills.
Experiences Contributing to College STEM Success
The findings from our quantitative dataset demonstrate that student- and school-level race, gender, and SES characteristics differentially shape students’ preparation for college STEM success. We draw upon our qualitative interviews to illustrate how race, class, and gender dynamics once again intersect with organizational and cultural features of the university once a secondary school graduate arrives on a college campus. Our interviews illustrate how the university’s cultural climate and organizational characteristics also have an impact on whether the undergraduate succeeds in graduating with a STEM degree.
Feelings of Belonging in Chosen STEM Major. Students who feel they belong in their STEM major are more likely to persist. We found that White men were most likely to report a sense of belonging whereas women of color were the least likely (see Figure 1). Compared to the physical sciences and engineering, women were more likely to report a sense of belonging in biology—a field in which they are the majority. Four key factors contributed to a sense of belonging for all students: interpersonal relationships with peers or professors, perceived self-competence, personal interest in the field, and a science identity (that is, feeling like a “science person”). Our findings indicate that students who remain in STEM majors report a greater sense of belonging than those who leave STEM. These results suggest that structural and cultural features of universities, including the foci of STEM curricula and choice of instructional approach, likely advantage White male STEM undergraduates.
Perceptions of Professors’ Care about Students Learning. We found that students who perceived that their professors cared about their learning reported a greater sense of belonging in STEM. Among both leavers and majors, White women were most likely to perceive their STEM professors cared about their learning while women of color were the least likely. We found no discernible difference by race in men’s reported perceptions of professor care (see Figure 2).
Perceptions of Instructional Approaches. Certain instructional approaches also influence STEM learning. Our findings indicate that active teaching environments often positively impact students’ sense of belonging as well as their desire to continue in STEM (see Figure 3). We found that most students prefer a more active learning environment than they report experiencing. Notably, discrepancies between preferred mode of instruction and perceived mode of instruction are greater among leavers than those who remain in the major. Active learning is the clear preference among URM leavers (55%) and female leavers (61%). Yet, only 8% of URM leavers and 11% of female leavers perceive their college STEM professors utilize active learning approaches. Lecture-based instruction is not preferred by any race-by-gender cohort. At the same time, 65% of URM leavers and 70% of female leavers perceived that their STEM classes were lecture-based. These results indicate that lecture-based environments may discourage the retention of underrepresented students.
Chilly Gender and Race Climate. All learning is fostered by inclusive and respectful cultural climates. Yet, it is well-documented that women and URM experience STEM courses differently than students demographically well-represented in STEM. In fact, female and URM students in STEM programs often describe a “chilly” climate where they face microaggressions that undermine their success. We tap into this cultural dimension of the STEM experience through questions about students’ awareness of White and male privilege in STEM. We asked our sample of NC undergraduate STEM majors their views about whether the experience of being in a STEM major was different for people of different races and genders.
We found a large majority of women of color perceive that both race and gender impact their own and others’ experiences as STEM majors (see Figure 4). In contrast, White men are likely to be unaware of any impact of race or gender on being a student in STEM. Students who acknowledged racialized or gendered experiences in STEM classrooms did not always attribute disparate experiences to cultural or systemic factors. We categorized reasons that were offered as either innate, internal differences among undergraduates (i.e., men are better in math) or systemic factors in schools and society (i.e., racism, sexism).
Students who attributed disparate experiences in STEM to systemic factors commonly mentioned being a demographic minority, intimidation, feeling out of place, feeling pressure to work harder, and/or discrimination, teacher/peer bias against women or people of color, or cultural assumptions implying the superiority of White people and men. A small number of students—who were mostly White women—stated that women or people of color can benefit from their underrepresented status, because they may receive extra encouragement and opportunities. We also found some interviewees, irrespective of their own demographics, believe women and students of color often work harder than men and Whites as a response to the sexism and racism they encounter. Together, interview findings suggest that many female and URM students face “chilly” cultural climates in some of their STEM courses.
The roots of race, class, and gender disparities in college STEM outcomes among North Carolina youth are complex and far-reaching. They extend across the larger culture and society, including educational systems, and they begin long before students enter college. Efforts to close gaps in college STEM outcomes require a long-term approach. We can start by acknowledging that current disparities are the result of cumulative smaller inequitable acts and larger institutional arrangements that accrue advantages or disadvantages across students’ educational trajectories. Our results point to the dynamic structural and cultural forces related to class, race, and gender that influence whether students become interested in STEM, are prepared in high school to study these fields once they matriculate, and whether they declare and graduate with STEM majors. The differential experiences of female and URM students in STEM are often invisible to students who are most privileged by their race and gender. Because the roots of the disparities are broad and deep, they defy simple solutions. However, our findings point to several dynamics at the college level—a sense of belonging in a STEM major, caring professors, active learning instructional approaches—that may positively influence female and URM students’ experiences in college STEM programs. Findings suggest that reforming structural arrangements and fostering cultural climates that shift the focus away from deficit models—fix the women and students of color—likely will create conditions that begin to broaden the roots of STEM success for all youth.
Roslyn Arlin Mickelson (Roslyn Mickelson@uncc.edu) is Chancellor’s Professor and Professor of Sociology, Public Policy, and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Elizabeth Stearns is Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Martha Cecilia Bottia is Research Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Katherine Rainey is a Doctoral Student in Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Melissa Dancy is Research Faculty at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Stephanie Moller is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Public Policy Doctoral Program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
DeeDee Allen is Professor of Chemistry at Wake Technical Community College.
Jason Giersch is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Roots of STEM Research Summarized in Essay
Bottia, M., Giersch, J., Mickelson, R., Stearns, E., and Moller, S. (2015). “Distributive Justice Antecedents of Race and Gender Disparities in First Year College Performance” Social Justice Research, published online 21 June 2015. DOI 10.007/s11211-015-0242-x
Bottia, M., Mickelson, R., Giersch, J., Stearns, E., and Moller, S. 2018. “The role of high school racial composition and opportunities to learn in students’ STEM college participation.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 55:446-473. DOI10. 1002/tea.21426
Bottia, M., Mickelson, R. Stearns, E. (2019). “The Role of Sequenced Racially Diverse Schools in the Pathways to STEM College Degrees.” Unpublished manuscript.
Bottia, M., Stearns, E., Mickelson, R. and Moller, S. (2018). “Boosting the numbers of STEM majors: the role of high schools with a STEM program.” Science Education 102:85-107. DOI: 10.1002/sce.21318.
Bottia, M., Stearns, E., Parker, A., Mickelson, R. and Moller, S. (2015). “The Relationships among High School STEM Learning Experiences and Students’ Intent to Declare and Declaration of a STEM Major in College.” Teachers College Record 117(3).
Bottia, M., Stearns, E., Mickelson, R., Moller, S., and Valentino, L. (2015). “Growing the Roots of STEM Majors: Female Math and Science High School Faculty and the Participation of Students in STEM.” Economics of Education Review 45: 14-27. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.econedurev.2015.01.002
Dancy, M., Rainey, K., Mickelson, R., Stearns, E., and Moller, S. (2019). “Undergraduates’ Awareness of White and Male Privilege in STEM.” Under review. International Journal of STEM Education.
Giersch, J. (2018). “Academic tracking, High-Stakes Tests, and Preparing Students for College: How Inequality Persists within Schools.” Educational Policy, 32 (7), 907-935.
Moller, S, Banerjee, N., Bottia, M., Stearns, E., Mickelson, R., Dancy, M., Wright, E., and Valentino, L. (2014). “Moving Latino/a Students into STEM Fields: The Role of Teachers and Professional Communities in Secondary Schools.” Journal of Hispanic Higher Education 1- 31.http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1538192714540533
Rainey, K., Dancy, M., Mickelson, R., Stearns, E., and Moller, S. (2018). “Race and Gender differences in how sense of belong influences decisions to major in STEM.” International Journal of STEM Education 5,10: 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-018-0115-6
Rainey, K., Dancy, M., Stearns, E., Mickelson, R., and Moller, S. (2019). “A descriptive study of race and gender differences in instructional style and perceived professor care influence decisions to major in STEM.” International Journal of STEM Education 6, 6: 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-019-0159-2
Stearns, E., Bottia, M., Davalos, E., Mickelson, R., Moller, S., and Valentino, L. (2016). “Demographic Characteristics of High School Math and Science Teachers and Girls’ Success in STEM.” Social Problems 63: 87-110.http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/socpro/spv027.
Stearns, E., Bottia, M., Mickelson, R., Moller, S., Dancy, M., Jha, N., Giersch, J. (2019). “Do relative advantages in STEM vs. non-STEM grades explain the gender gap in selection of a STEM major in college? A multimethod answer.” American Educational Research Journal. http://dx.DOI.org/10.3102/0002831219853533