Professors in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) can no longer simply carry knowledge—they must also empathize with students while creating an environment that fosters a sense of belonging and trust among students. So many of my students have come to me and expressed how important it is for them to feel like the classroom is a safe space for them to succeed. The graduation rate for students with STEM degrees is less than 40%, historically underrepresented students (women and ethnic/racial minorities) make up even less of that percentage. Issues of STEM identity, lack of sense of belonging, and lack of trust prevent student success and retention within STEM majors.
STEM identity is the extent to which a student feels like they fit or don’t fit into STEM fields and majors. Traditionally underrepresented students (e.g., racial minorities, women) have been found to struggle to find their STEM identity and it has been shown to affect the student's well-being. Gender, feeling accepted in STEM, perceived success relative to their peers, perception of the performance standards, and feeling insignificant have been noted as components that impact students’ well-being. Fortunately, many of these factors can be positively influenced by professors and their classroom environments.
Professors should work to understand their role in impacting students' STEM identity and well-being through classroom practices that increase a sense of belonging and trust. Authentic learning environments that encompass increased peer and faculty interactions create classroom experiences that cultivate a sense of belonging and a positive science identity. A sense of belonging is a student’s perception of physical and emotional safety, being seen, being understood, and having encouraging relationships with teachers and peers. Trust of faculty and peers were found to be correlated with students’ sense of belonging within the classroom.
Creating an environment to increase a student's STEM identity and well-being can feel daunting for educators. However, with evolving research and data, there are small efforts that can increase students’ overall sense of belonging and trust. The availability and approachability of a faculty member were found to be some of the greatest factors that made them remain at an institution and within their STEM major. Additionally, professors that were enthusiastic, relatable, and used real-world examples were large factors in students’ retaining at their institution and in their major.
Not only should professors be able to teach the material appropriately, but they should be able to help their students learn, engage, and connect to the material and each other. Professors are responsible for their classroom environment and can often contribute to a student's success and retention within STEM without even noticing. The classroom community is heavily impacted by the engagement between students, exposure to differing perspectives, and management of successful group dynamics. Professors must begin to understand and work to create a classroom environment focused on increasing STEM identity, trust, and sense of belonging to help decrease the retention disparities within STEM.
Taziah Kenney is a doctoral student at Widener University.