Build a Sense of Community

Research shows that students who feel they 'belong' have a higher degree of intrinsic motivation and academic confidence ([Freeman, Anderman and Jensen, 2007] [Anderman and Leake, 2005] ). Establishing this sense of community in a class or in a department is one of the most important recommendations coming out of the 2011 report from the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine - Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America's Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads.

"Undergraduate and graduate STEM education programs should incorporate social inclusion strategies that include peer-to-peer support, study groups, program activities fostering social integration, and tutoring and mentoring programs."
- NAS et al. (2011) p. 184

It's important to note that, since every student is different, creating this sense of belonging is not a matter of one-size-fits-all. There will need to be numerous overlapping strategies which create a departmental "ecosystem" diverse enough for many kinds of student to find their niche - their way of belonging in the larger community. Some ideas include:

  • Alumni involvement: Bring back alumni from your department, ideally representative of diverse communities, and working in diverse careers, to talk about their career experiences to your students. Seeing such presentations helps students see themselves in five, 10, 20 years working in the geosciences and may provide career path options that they had not considered. It may also be a beneficial for development.
  • Field trips: Field trips and camps build a sense of community amongst a cohort of students. Students unable to participate (due to disabilities, family or work responsibilities, financial limitations, etc.) miss that key element that supports their success throughout the program. Providing funding, selecting locations that are comfortable for a diverse group (e.g., less rustic locations, food that meets religious requirements, etc.) will increase student participation.
  • A department geology club is essential to build community among your undergraduates, as well as developing their organizational and leadership skills.
  • Social events: Events to which the whole departmental community are invited (e.g. regular lunches, holiday/graduation parties, homecoming) are useful for breaking down barriers between faculty and students.

Fig. 1 from Walton and Cohen (2011). The chart shows the raw GPA of students over time differentiated by race and experimental group. The effects of telling freshmen that it's normal to have trouble adjusting to college life and work are clear in the GPA data throughout their college career. Details
Two particularly insidious issues that can make minority students feel like they don't belong in STEM classrooms are Stereotype Threat and Solo Status. When they are activated, these challenges increase the stress level on minority students and can contribute to lower levels of performance. Stereotype Threat involves an unconscious reaction by students to a known negative stereotype about the group that they belong to. Fear of confirming the stereotype or trying to disprove the stereotype can cause students to do more poorly on assignments. Solo Status is associated with being the only representative of particular minority in a group. This can lead to stress from being perceived as representing their entire subset. There are good teaching strategies that can minimize the negative impacts of both of these threats: positive self-affirmations before tests, exposure to role models who they can identify with, framing their difficulties as something that everyone goes through.

Another part of establishing this sense of community is knowing how to engage groups of students that may feel marginalized. For example, veterans, English language learners, and students with disabilities are groups of students who may not feel like they have a place in the STEM disciplines. But there are strategies that can help them understand how they can be a part of the learning communities in our classes.