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Bonds to Faculty Help Keep Latinos in STEM Majors


Latino students who major in math, sciences, and technology have a better academic performance if they also have strong relationships with the faculty, according to a recent study from the University of Southern California.

Dr. Darnell Cole, an associate professor at USC, examined different variables that affect student academic performance in the study, “Examining the Academic Success of Latino Students in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Majors.”  The study was published in the July-August issue of the Journal of College Student Development and was co-authored by Araceli Espinoza, a graduate student

Cole said one reason they undertook the study was that trends show that minority enrollment in higher education is expected to grow over the next ten to thirty years.

 “If there are issues in sustaining minority recruitment, particularly in STEM majors, we want to identify ways to keep students and help them be successful in those fields,” said Cole.

The study used a sample of 146 Latino students in STEM majors and assessed academic success based on how much the student’s grade point average (GPA) and retention in the STEM program were affected by variables such as faculty-student interaction and participation in racial/ethnic organizations.  The data were not tracked to provide hard percentages on the relationship between GPA and faculty-student interaction or racial/ethnic groups and STEM retention, but only suggested correlations between the variables and student performance, Cole said

All participants were tracked through their senior year in the STEM program.

The study suggests that faculty play an important role in creating an engaging environment for Latino students and that departure from STEM majors is because of a “chilly academic environment.”  It found that faculty accessibility and efforts to engage students outside of the classroom are positive indicators of the environment of the student’s chosen field.

Cole said students who are of a racial or ethnic minority may need extra encouragement, particularly from faculty, to succeed in an unfamiliar academic environment.  While the study shows that faculty bonds benefit Latinos in STEM-major retention, Cole observes that such interaction could help students from different backgrounds succeed in other fields.

However, Cole said he was surprised by the negative impact participation in racial/ethnic groups would have on success in STEM majors, as the study found.

 “We didn’t anticipate that ethnic participation would be negative,” admitted Cole. 

The study examined other factors that might have contributed to the find, speculating that students who feel unfulfilled by their major will turn to different outlets, which may introduce them to majors that better meet their academic standards. 

“The reality of it is, you’re not going to be studying if you’re at a social event,” said Cole.  “But if you enjoy your major, then it’s likely that you’ll spend time doing it.” 

The study also highlighted the importance of  “cultural capital”; that is, certain relationships or networks that help foster a student’s development and academic outcome. 

“For an instance, if you have a parent, a significant relative, or exposure to someone in the field, it gives you a kind of cultural capital that other individuals do not have,” explained Cole. 

He gave teaching style as another example of cultural capital.

 “Take the tradition of the lecture-style classroom.  If a student is used to assuming a passive role with authoritative figures, then their cultural norm will suit that style of teaching.”  Cole said,

He added that demographics as a factor which accounts for success of African American students in historically Black colleges and universities, Latino students in Hispanic-serving institutions, and American Indian students in tribal colleges, where cultural norms may suit such groups better.

While most schools have programs in place that focus on minority-student development, Cole hopes that the study will prompt schools to adopt policies to provide equitable academic environments for all students.

“I hope the schools will not be swayed by raw talent, but to use strategies that differ by variable to help all students meet their academic goals,” said Cole.  “The faculty really needs to make a concerted effort to reach out to their students, to use love and passion to engage them.  If Latino students can see the gains, then they will be encouraged to stay.”

However, the best way to succeed starts outside of the college campus.

 “We find that students who take advanced or college-bound courses in high school are more likely to perform well in the given field,” said Cole. 

He emphasized the importance of building a strong foundation in math and sciences early on, even before high school.  Cole said that starting math and sciences courses in sixth grade can help students gain basic skills that will increase their comfort level with the subjects—a crucial factor in STEM major retention and success.

“It’s very possible to positively impact Latino students in STEM with very simple strategies,” said Cole.

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