Lessons from Participatory Action Research with Under-represented Students in STEM

Over the past two years, a Participatory Action Research team including Anita Chikkatur (Associate Professor, Educational Studies) and student researchers Diana Delgado, Vivian Do, Phuong Nguyen, Ka Thao, and Stephanie Valle studied the experiences of under-represented students (including women, racial minorities, low-income students, and LGBTQA+ students) in STEM classes and majors at Carleton College.

Through literature review and interviews with faculty, staff, and students, the team generated suggestions for the STEM departments on how to ensure a productive learning environment for all of their students. In addition to presenting to the Carleton community their findings on from faculty and staff interviews (see video here) and from student interviews (see video here), the team aims to publish an article about the project. Several departments at Carleton invested in this PAR project, matching a grant from Youthprise and MNCC. The research team hopes that these findings will inform ongoing and future efforts by Carleton’s STEM departments to increase the diversity of their departments’ students and faculty and continue creating welcoming spaces for all students.

Given the many other people and institutions seeking to make STEM more inclusive, we share the following recommendations:

  • Keep doing the things mentioned by students as what makes them feels supported and welcomed! These include faculty being approachable and patient; making an attempt to understand students’ backgrounds; getting to know students holistically; being proactive about reaching out to students struggling in their courses; and showing students that they are capable through concrete actions such as hiring them as teaching or research assistants. Student groups, such as the Women in Physics group, also provided a supportive environment for traditionally under-represented students. Given the challenges that under-represented students face, they greatly appreciate visible interest from faculty and staff in learning about these challenges and creating solutions.
  • Having department-wide conversations, rather than just having college-wide conversations, about issues of diversity may help more students feel like they have a stake and have a voice.
  • Make clear expectations for office hours: Are students supposed to be prepared before they come to office hours? How should they be prepared?
  • Help students develop personal and community resources and frameworks for describing their experiences of marginalization or discrimination.
  • Make clear what avenues students can use to speak to faculty about troubling peer dynamics.
  • Ensure that there’s more communication and integration between STEM departments and dedicated spaces of support for under-represented students.
  • Be more careful with the language used when talking to students about what is expected of them when they come to classes; do not make assumptions about students’ abilities or preparation.
  • Acknowledge, rather than ignore, diversity in student experiences, identities, and backgrounds.
  • Reach out to students who are not already interested in STEM about science, technology, and mathematics education and opportunities.

Campuses might also consider supporting Participatory Action Research projects. As Stephanie Valle noted at MNCC’s April 2017 summit, the research team experience was “very empowering,” since Participatory Action Research “is founded on the belief that those most impacted by research should take the lead in framing the questions, the design, methods, and analysis of the research at hand. . . . Research and action must be done with people, not on or for people.”