AAC&U Keynote Addresses Student Identity and the STEM “Push-Out Culture”

By Diana Crow and Alberto I. Roca, PhD

Dr. Jamie Bracey of Temple University kicked off the 2014 Transforming STEM Higher Education conference by making the audience recite one simple promise: “I pledge. To fight. The push-out culture.”

The Transforming STEM conference, which drew an audience of about 600 university faculty and administrators was co-organized by Project Kaleidoscope and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), and inclusive diversity was one of the conference’s key themes.

Dr. Bracey is the Director of Temple University’s Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achivement (MESA) program that hosts weekend classes and events where students from Philadelphia high schools can gain hands-on experience in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). The goal is do more than the STEM 1.0 approach of simply providing students with books and material about STEM. Instead MESA and other STEM 2.0 programs encourage students to develop their own identity within the STEM field.

According to Dr. Bracey’s model, forming an identity within the STEM field what drives motivation to persist. She has developed a three stage model of STEM education to illustrate how experts can best engage minority students in STEM:

STEM 1.0: “Engage & Inspire” is the stage where students have access to texts and materials about interesting science. Most university outreach departments have a handle on this, but struggle to progress to the next stage.

STEM 2.0:”Immerse & Acculturate” where the student’s identity as a STEM person begins to form through active participation in science activities. Many of the largest and earliest “leaks” in the training pipeline occur when minority students are thrown into a university STEM culture, which is often extremely different from the culture minority students experience in K-12. Many of them end up dropping (or being pushed) out.

STEM 3.0: “Innovate and Produce” is the “holy grail” of STEM outreach, where the student finally becomes the expert and joins the STEM field as a worker.

STEM 2.0 is the stage where many students from minority backgrounds get pushed out of STEM. Many teachers confuse this lack of “Yes. I am a STEM student” identity with the students not caring. That’s where the pledge to fight the push-out culture becomes critical.

To get students to persist, colleges have to consider their role within the broader educational ecosystem and offer support that will enable students to form that identity.

Consider where they’re coming from, Dr. Bracey urged the crowd: Modern K-12 education has become a culture of fear. Specifically, fear of failure. STEM education relies on giving students room to make mistakes, to improve their experiments stage-by-stage, and to learn from what doesn’t work. That shift, from a K-12 classroom where students are expected to be “seen and not heard” to a university lab where failure is an integral part of the learning process constitutes one of the biggest culture shocks in the transition into higher-ed.

But the fact that STEM revolves around making mistakes is what gives the field its rigor. Students coming in from K-12 are not prepared for this, and that’s when they drop out. “The big fear was not that they couldn’t do the work; the big fear was making a mistake doing the work,” Dr. Bracey said in a subsequent interview. “There are a lot of really well-intentioned people who don’t understand that the remedial culture of the classroom is shutting these kids down.”

To address this issue, we’re going to need a lot more collaboration between universities and K-12. “Let them break stuff.” Bracey told the AAC&U crowd. “Let them celebrate in taking apart the Legos and putting them back together again.”

Let them break stuff! - Bracey

Another issue is that many universities have few ties to two-year programs at community colleges, where many minority students enroll. These two-year programs are designed to churn out marketable workers but do not teach the scientific method. However, 2+3 engineering programs, where students enroll in universities after their associates, have had success in recruiting minorities. But when Bracey asked the university faculty to indicate whether their institutions had close ties to two-year institutions, there were relatively few hands. There are probably opportunities for new collaborations and/or expansions of existing ones in that area.

However, the ultimate determinant of success is whether the students feel that they’re on the same team as their advisers and the other experts. Non-native English speakers reap huge benefits from having language-accomodations available to them in the moment of teaching.

“We [black and Latino communities] have produced children who are socialized to be highly communicative. Their cultural norms are about call and response,” Bracey said later. Their cultural norms often don’t mesh with the way science is taught, especially in K-12 classrooms. In most cases, the way white children are socialized before they walk into STEM classrooms makes adjusting to science class much simpler. “If you can do that for some kids, you can do that for the minorities in the United States,” said Bracey. “You have to figure out what gives them a cultural advantage.”

Another example: Programs designed to increase the number of women and girls in STEM fields often do so in ways that inadvertently exclude women and girls of color. “Research out of the Level Playing Field Institute in California that does suggest that girls of different cultures like to learn. But white girls do prefer, often, to learn in single gender environments. That is NOT the culture of black and latina girls.

figure out what gives [minority kids] a cultural advantage

Advising is also key for retention of minorities, because students need to feel accepted into the culture. When Bracey started reforming Temple’s engineering advising program, the undergrad-to-adviser ratio was 500-to-1. “That’s crazy!” she said and the AAC&U audience seemed to agree. One strategy she used was recruiting the leaders of student groups at the engineering school as tutors and letting them compete for which group could be the best tutors.

She closed out the talk by re-emphasizing the idea that universities are part of a larger ecosystem, and if they hope to remain competitive, the universities will have to integrate other cultures into their ways of doing things. Both the experts and the external communities have to be part of this conversation.

Although theories about situated learning and culturally-sensitive education have been in the parlance for decades, Bracey notes that these strategies are rarely applied outside of “remediation hell”. In the vast majority of situations where students interact with STEM experts, they are still expected to adapt to the expert’s culture.

“You have to realize that these kids have expertise,” said Bracey. “And you have to look at what gives them an advantage. One of the things I thought of was that if we could do this in a math, engineering, or technology space, then that’s amazing.”

Relevant Literature

J.B. Bracey (2014) The Issue: Moving From STEM Engagement to Motivation to Persist, Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal, Issue 19, Summer

S. Leach (2014) STEM initiative introduces high-tech careers to minority students, Philly.com, January 3

Diana Crow is a Boston-based freelance science journalist. She holds a BA in biology from Bard College and is currently serving as a project manager on the National Science Communication Insitute’s Profile Series and as co-editor-in-chief of blogs at The Scientista Foundation’s website. Alberto I. Roca, Ph.D. is the Founder and Editor of MinorityPostdoc.org. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors.

Figure credit: J.B. Bracey, Slideshare

The citation for this article is:
D. Crow and A.I. Roca (2014) AAC&U Keynote Addresses Student Identity and the STEM “Push-Out Culture”.
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AAC&U 2014 Keynote: Leveraging Culture to Create a Powerful Eco-system for STEM Diversity from drjamiebracey

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Published 28-Dec-2014