- Introduction to small group discussions at the November 2005 Harvard Symposium on Diversity in the Sciences
- Underlying challenges
- Low number of underrepresented minority (URM) students entering the sciences
- Low retention and lower GPA of URM students in the sciences
- Recruitment strategies
- Pre-college outreach
- Recruitment from two year colleges
- Diversity weekend during recruitment of freshman class
- Improved communication with admissions
- Strategies for student success
- Better mentoring programs
- Study groups
- Training on how to succeed in college
- Bridge programs
- Improved introductory courses
- Formation of cohort groups
- Improved access to laboratory research
- Challenges to implementation of strategies
- Lack of strategic planning
- Institutional climate
- Lack of commitment by faculty
- External pressures
- Resources (money and time)
- Strategies for institutional change
- Administrative and faculty development
- Rewarding activities that promote diversity
- Collection and dissemination of data
- Funding for programs that promote diversity
- Goals of science education
- Challenges unique to liberal arts colleges
- Student perspectives
During the symposium, participants engaged in small group discussions divided either by institution type (liberal arts college versus research institution) or role (faculty/administrator/student). In each group, a scribe recorded key ideas, which were collected and aggregated. We report here a collection of ideas that were discussed by the groups. This is not an endorsement of particular viewpoints, but rather a record of ideas that were discussed. In most cases, multiple discussion groups voiced the suggestions that are presented here.
2. Underlying challenges
Prior to attending the symposium, schools were asked to gather data on a variety of factors regarding the success in the sciences of students categorized by different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds and by gender. Participants in the discussion groups identified two underlying trends in this data. First, lower numbers of underrepresented minority (URM) students enter college with an intention of majoring in science. Second, the rates of retention and the GPAs of URM students are lower. Retention of URM students in science courses through the freshman year is particularly poor.
3. Recruitment strategies
While increased recruitment of both URM faculty and students to the sciences were recurring objectives, strategies focused mostly on student recruitment. Science departments face two challenges in recruiting URM students: recruiting them to the school in the first place, and then recruiting them to the science department. Students complained that because science is generally perceived as difficult, students who do not enter with an initial interest in science are rarely encouraged to study it. Community outreach programs, in which universities form partnerships with local schools and teachers, were recommended as a method for increasing the interest of pre-college URM students in careers in science. Outreach programs can take a variety of forms, including programs during the summer or the school year, and may include participation by faculty and/or college students. In particular, URM scientists can serve as valuable role models for younger students. Another suggestion was to form better relationships with local two-year colleges and recruit URM students from these schools. Some schools host a diversity weekend during recruitment season, which provides an opportunity to introduce URM students to the science faculty. A related issue that many schools face is improving the communication between the science departments and the admissions department, so that each may clarify its needs and decisions.
4. Strategies for student success
Participants made a large number of suggestions for improving the achievement of URM students in the sciences, often drawing on successful programs at their own schools. While some of these programs may be directed specifically at underrepresented students, many of these programs would benefit the education of all students. A common theme is that faculty need to be able to identify students who are struggling and provide early intervention.
a. Better mentoring programs
Mentoring programs were a universal suggestion. While mentoring can take many forms, most people suggested instituting formal mentoring systems, whereby freshmen are paired with a faculty member and possibly also with an upper class student. Mentors-whether they are faculty or peers-should be trained in order to understand their responsibilities. Ideally, mentors/advisors should keep track of students as they progress through school. Many students would like a closer relationship with their mentor, suggesting that they go out to lunch or dinner, or even visit their mentor’s home. Graduate students and postdoctoral scholars can also serve as mentors, and should be compensated monetarily for such work. Additionally, students suggested that there should be a forum for providing feedback about advising.
b. Study groups
In order to help students who are struggling, particularly in large introductory science classes, many participants recommended formation of student study groups. Because the students who most need this type of help often avoid it, many people suggested mandatory study groups, whereby students come to feel that the study groups are an integral part of their education. People liked the model of training students to work as facilitators for study groups, noting that facilitators need to be students with good interpersonal skills, but maybe not the top grades. People also felt that study groups work best when provided with a structure and guidelines by faculty, such as a list of questions that need to be solved.
c. Training on how to succeed in college
Students and faculty alike emphasized the importance of teaching the skills necessary for succeeding in college, which may be particularly valuable for students with disadvantaged backgrounds. Topics to cover include study skills and information on time management, different learning styles, college culture and expectations, and how to seek help from professors. Such training can be provided in a variety of ways, including workshops or bridge programs.
d. Bridge programs
Bridge programs are aimed at giving students, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, familiarity with college culture. Such programs usually occur during the summer before freshman year, although some schools have programs during a winter term. These programs, which range from one to five weeks, create a small community of students who report a feeling that they have a sense of ownership over the campus, helping them succeed when the school year begins. The courses at bridge programs vary widely: some focus on science and others do not, and classes range from remedial to advanced.
e. Improved introductory courses
Participants agreed that retention of students through introductory courses science courses was one of the biggest challenges with URM students. These classes, which are often perceived as weeding out all but the top students, traditionally take the format of large lecture courses. People offered a wide range of suggestions for improving introductory courses in order to help students succeed and maintain interest their interest in science. Many schools have decreased the class size of their introductory courses and anecdotally report an increase in GPA of URM students, while others use techniques that simulate smaller class size within larger courses. Realizing that some students respond better to different learning styles, faculty reported changing their teaching styles. Many are focusing on problem solving, problem-based learning, and small group work, and are switching the focus of their courses to engage students with more relevant, exciting topics. Other suggestions included the use of technology to enhance learning, including personal response systems and the Blackboard online system.
f. Formation of cohort groups
Many people suggested creating cohort groups, in which small groups of students form a community and work together. Participants anecdotally reported that students united in cohort groups earn higher grades. This idea is based in part on the example of the successful Posse program, in which groups of URM students are rigorously prepared for college during their senior year of high school and then attend a select group of colleges together.
g. Improved access to laboratory research
Improving access to laboratory research, especially for younger students, was another widespread recommendation. More opportunities should exist, and students need to be better appraised of the opportunities. Research experiences can take the form of summer programs and/or support during the school year. Several motivations were cited for improving research opportunities. First, early involvement in laboratories may pique the interest of students who might otherwise lose their enthusiasm toward class work. Second, research experiences during college serve as a gateway toward continuing graduate work in science, which is a goal of many faculty/administrators for their students. Additionally, laboratories can be a good place for mentoring and forming a community.
5. Challenges to implementation of strategies
Faculty and administrators cited a number of challenges in addressing these issues. Administrators reported a lack of strategic planning around diversity, and institutional climates that did not necessarily embrace the topic. Many complained of a lack of commitment to diversity by faculty and administrations. A common perception is that people don’t feel a sense of personal responsibility for diversity because another department is taking care of it. The demands on faculty are already high, and at many schools, promotion and tenure revolve around tangibles such as publications. Mentoring and teaching require a lot of time, and often are not rewarded by their institutions. Furthermore, many of the suggested strategies, such as better access for undergraduates to laboratories, require increased funding.
a. Administrative and faculty development
At an administrative level, participants suggested integrating a plan for diversity into an institution’s strategic plan. All faculty need to be held responsible for carrying out diversity initiatives. Suggestions to get faculty on board include forming reading groups that focus on recruitment and retention of minority students. Similarly, schools can hold seminars with faculty from other institutions that have successful diversity programs. Many types of faculty development were recommended, including workshops on mentoring and teaching strategies.
b. Rewarding activities that promote diversity
A common challenge is that the institutional structure does not reward activities that would improve the recruitment and retention of URM students. Rather than punishing faculty for taking time away from research and devoting time to mentoring, teaching, and hosting students in the lab, these should be among the criteria used for promotion. Additionally, faculty could receive some amount of course release for these activities.
c. Collection and dissemination of data
Many participants agreed on the value of administrative support for collecting data about the progress of URM students in the sciences, both during college and following graduation. Sharing this data with faculty was suggested as a method of informing them of current problems and motivating a change in practices. Additionally, collecting data about why students leave a particular major can be used to improve the program.
d. Funding for programs that promote diversity
Implementation of the suggested strategies for improving diversity in the sciences will necessitate money. Among the many programs that require funding are mentoring (including paying graduate students and postdocs as mentors), research opportunities for undergraduates, curriculum development, and pre-college outreach. Administrators need to seek funds, including increasing the endowment, in order to address these issues.
7. Goals of science education
What is the goal of science education? A majority of those who commented on the issue stated an objective of increasing the number of URM students who attend graduate school and attain a PhD. However, some attendees also noted that medical school is a valid destination, and that training high school teachers (something that is generally neglected by top schools) is also vital for the community. Moreover, some suggested that science literacy for more URM students in and of itself is a worthwhile goal. Regardless of the destination, participants stressed the importance of maintaining high expectations for all students.
8. Challenges unique to liberal arts colleges
Liberal arts colleges deal with a unique set of challenges in regard to URM students. The first results from the small number of students at the schools. Consequently, it is difficult to have enough URM students to form a critical mass and feel that they have a community within the sciences. The small numbers also make it difficult to collect and analyze data about student performance. To address this, some schools suggested collaborating with other small colleges, either for data collection or for events. Second, some small colleges have less developed laboratory infrastructure. In order to create better research opportunities for their students, they proposed creating more formal relationships with research institutions.
9. Student perspectives
Included here are some of the sentiments voiced by student participants. An ideal science department would contain supportive and diverse faculty. The students seek good mentoring and close relationships with faculty, as well as a sense of community. While they think that working in research laboratories is a valuable experience, some find it difficult to balance research during the school year with other activities and course requirements. A common concern is feeling like they are being singled out based on the color of their skin, as opposed to their intelligence. These students have a passion for science, and want other students to know how great science is.
Compiled by Tamara Brenner, Harvard University