Studies have shown that students from certain backgrounds are less likely than their peers to complete an undergraduate degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics — or STEM. These groups are low-income students, first-generation college students, female students and students from underrepresented minority backgrounds: Latinx, African American, Native American and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander.
A paper published on June 10 in Science Advances, co-authored by Biology Principal Lecturer Emeritus Scott Freeman and UW research associate and instructor Elli Theobald, reports that underrepresented students received lower grades in the general chemistry series compared to their peers and, if the grade was sufficiently low, were less likely to continue in the series and more likely to leave STEM.
But if underrepresented students completed the first general chemistry course with at least the minimum grade needed to continue in the series, they were more likely than their peers to continue the general chemistry series and complete this major step toward a STEM degree.
“General chemistry is often the first science course that many would-be STEM majors take in college, and it has a brutal reputation for causing lots of attrition,” said senior author Scott Freeman, a UW principal lecturer emeritus of biology. “When we examined this large dataset, we discovered that not only is this true, but it is having a disproportionately negative impact on underrepresented students, and likely contributes to lower diversity in STEM fields.”
Now that the team has identified a major reason that fewer underrepresented students continue in STEM, Freeman and his colleagues want to understand why. One major reason may be teaching methods. During the study period, both general chemistry and organic chemistry were taught using traditional, lecture-based formats. Freeman and his team have previously shown that so-called “active learning” methods create more inclusive learning environments and boost student performance in STEM courses. These techniques often rely on discussions and problem-solving approaches, and disproportionately benefit underrepresented students.
There are likely other factors, including larger socioeconomic and cultural issues, said Freeman. But the hyperpersistence the team discovered, if confirmed by other studies, may offer a path forward.
“It may be that if you can make changes to coursework and learning that boost student performance — that help underrepresented students get at least that minimum grade to keep going — they can do it,” said Freeman. “These students can do the hard work. They have what it takes.”