Combatting exclusivity in STEM fields

Graphic by Katie Erickson

For many students, STEM fields feel exclusive, and for good reason. Oftentimes, students have poor experiences in high school and feel they need to catch up after their first day in college STEM courses. Other students say they don’t feel welcome because they believe they don’t fit a certain mold or stereotype of a scientist.

Peggy Wilson, a professor at University of Alberta, and many other researchers have found that lack of classroom community and lack of contact with professors outside of class can contribute to these feelings of exclusivity.

Many minority students end up dropping out of STEM after their first semester as a result of these factors. Several professors are trying to combat these issues directly, including Mary Hatcher-Skeers at the W.M. Keck Science Department.

A professor of chemistry and the co-director of the Center for Teaching and Learning for the 5Cs, Hatcher-Skeers has done significant work to help students feel more comfortable in STEM courses and to increase retention rates, especially for minority groups.

Though her degree is not in higher education, Hatcher-Skeers has always been interested in pedagogy. Because of this, she has asked the question: “How do students learn, and how do we create classrooms that are the most beneficial to all students?” she said in an interview with TSL.

Hatcher-Skeers has worked with students on senior theses to survey students and assess feelings of comfort and community surrounding general chemistry classrooms. Through her own research and students’ thesis research, she has implemented many pedagogical changes that have shown an increase in feelings of community within the classroom.

Although these strides are promising, Hatcher-Skeers said that “students experience a class differently.” This means that, even if one student is experiencing a strong sense of community or inclusivity, the student right next to them may not be.

She discussed the reality that, for many students, science does feel inaccessible and exclusive, and noted that this reality should not be dismissed. According to Hatcher-Skeers, it is up to the faculty to create more inclusive environments for students.

“Our job here is to create an inclusive environment where students can grow in confidence about their science,” she said.

The fact that multiple students have dedicated their entire theses to this issue is a testament to the work that Keck is doing to enhance classroom environments for all students. This allows students to share their personal experiences so that professors can make changes that best match student needs.

These steps are the first of many that can help students feel more welcome in STEM classrooms and ultimately lead to more diversity within the fields.

Caitlyn Fick is a chemistry major at Scripps College. She enjoys mountains, trees, water, and dogs.

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