Building a Sense of Community Among Students in STEM

Building a sense of community among students and faculty provides a powerful network of support and comradery among its members. As such, building a sense of community among STEM students and faculty can not only support students who are currently in STEM disciplines, but also provide incentive for new students to join the community; this, in turn, promotes recruitment and retention of students in STEM. Members of the community can share their experiences, help one another through academic or personal struggles, and can build a network that may lead to employment opportunities. In addition, a strong community provides an environment of trust wherein members can learn from one another and broaden its members perspectives.

Community building requires that faculty engage with students in intentional and meaningful ways with the goal of increasing positive interactions among students and between students and faculty. These interactions are directed toward the creation or enhancement of a 'sense of community' among individuals by helping students feel a sense of togetherness and commonality as they work through the material presented in the course. Community building in classrooms can take many forms and can involve varying degrees of involvement from faculty. At some institutions, building community is part of the department's strategic plan and opportunities for community building are built into each course. In other cases, faculty find ways to build community into their own individual classes.

This collection of teaching strategies and resources provides guidance and ideas for building a strong sense of community among students in STEM disciplines. The resources in this collection focus on helping faculty increase student involvement, implement practices that can help all students feel included and support minority students. Faculty face many challenges in trying to build community among students and the ideas on this page can help address them effectively. This page provides research-based strategies to build community in your work and also provides examples of how faculty at 2-year colleges have built communities.

Building Community into Programs

Some aspects of community can be best addressed at a higher level than what can be achieved in just one faculty member's class. Below, find strategies and suggestions about how to support minority students in STEM classes across programs. While the materials do focus on increasing participation from minorities, many of the strategies can be used to build community for all students, such as formalizing the role of advising and mentoring and supporting student's basic skills.

Benefits of increasing cultural sensitivity for students and faculty

Small things instructors can do to build community

  • set up support centers for departments (like physics) where all students can come to do homework and get help. Normalize attendance at these centers by enticing students to work there.
  • ice breakers in classes
  • potlucks for classes or advising groups
  • start a club or an outreach group (like a STEM club)
  • have students complete a contract, and personally set up a one-on-one appointment between each student and the professor to drop off the contract. This establishes a relationship immediately with student. Have a two week timeline to complete.

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Supporting Geoscience Transfer Students

Students who transfer from 2-year to 4-year institutions need intentional programming and extra support in order to remain in the STEM fields. This set of pages outlines how early recruitment of majors, supportive advising, research experiences, and collaborations between 2- and 4-year institutions can support students through challenging this transition.

Building Community through Pedagogy

Certain approaches to teaching can help students feel more engaged and included in a community of learning. From conducting research, to service learning, to seminars, the following approaches help students feel like their contributions matter and as though they are active participants in their own education. Beginning to engage students on the first day of class can help start the process of community building from the start.

Go to /NAGTWorkshops/undergraduate_research/index.html
Engage Undergraduates in Research

Engaging undergraduates in research is another strategy to inspire all students to participate in the learning community. By conducting research, students learn critical thinking and problem solving skills. Since all students can participate, a sense of community is established in the class.

Doane College builds community and a sense of identity for STEM research students by having a weekly coffee meet-up during the summer for students on campus conducting research. Each week, students from a different lab give a short summary of their research so far. During the school year, a Biomedical seminar is offered and all students who are working on an interdisciplinary project on biofilms meet once a week both semesters. All grant and school-funded students (LSAMP, INBRE, IRES, Doane internal funds) meet in this class.

Go to /integrate/teaching_materials/strengthen_connection.html
Inspire Students through Civic Engagement

Using civic engagement and service learning gives relevance to your content and can appeal to students' desire to learn material that is applicable to them and their community which appeals to all students including minority, first generation and students who are from rural areas. Students can more easily make connections between facts and application and develop a desire to take action.

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Begin Engaging Students on the First Day of Class

The first day of class sets the tone for the rest of the school year. Engaging students on the first day sends the message that your course will be engaging and interesting for the rest of the term. Many example lessons are presented that effectively engage students on the first day of class.

Go to /NAGTWorkshops/earlycareer/teaching/seminars.html
Make Seminars Lively and Engaging

Making seminars lively and engaging can help all students feel like they are contributing to their education. Students value the interactions they have with other students and learn well through active learning strategies that are appropriate for this level of course.

Building Community through Faculty/Student Interactions

The way that faculty interact with students can have a profound impact on the sense of community that is established in class. From their very first interactions with faculty, students develop perceptions about how faculty view them as students.

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Reducing the Feeling of Isolation

Minority students can feel isolated and as though others seem them as a stereotype. These feelings can become entangled for students and can lead to decreases in learning and academic performance. It can be very difficult to isolate and address individual feelings, so an effective approach that faculty may use is to raise all groups up. There are a number of ways that faculty can use positive strategies including using self-affirmations and praising all students.

Go to /NAGTWorkshops/affective/immediacy.html
Change The Way You Interact with Students

Instructional Immediacy are behaviors that faculty can use to reduce the distance between faculty and students. This page provides ideas for how an instructor may begin to change the way they interact with all students right away.

Go to /NAGTWorkshops/affective/motivation.html
Create Community through Motivation

Another way that instructors can affect student engagement is by helping to motivate students. Many of the strategies presented also support creating a sense of community among students such as providing positive feedback early, providing support, and creating an open learning atmosphere.

Go to /NAGTWorkshops/affective/index.html
Engage Student's Affective Domain

Many students say that they feel instructors don't value their contributions or abilities as much as other students'. This can cause some students to feel as though they are not part of the learning community. To change the way that students perceive the way an instructor values them, instructors can change the way that they interact with students.

Examples of Community Building from Two-Year Colleges

Building community virtually and across campuses and programs that have largely commuting populations

In the Iowa State University system, most of the 2-year campuses have implemented some kind of noon seminar program (i.e. STEM Club) that builds community and engagement among underrepresented students in STEM. DMACC, Kirkwood, and MCC have all done this. It is a model that works with commuting students. Food is often served and meetings include speakers, discussion, and information sharing.

From the 2013 Supporting Student Success in Geoscience at Two-Year Colleges workshop

Two-year colleges typically have higher enrollment of minority students than 4-year degree granting institutions. As such, faculty at 2-year colleges may have more direct experience in helping all students feel included and supported in STEM classes. The purpose of a July 2013 workshop titled Supporting Student Success in Geoscience at Two-Year Colleges (part of SAGE 2YC) was to explore ways in which 2-year college faculty can help prepare students to be successful in geoscience courses.

Go to /sage2yc/studentsuccess/workshop2013/program.html
The workshop program focused heavily on ways to support students with a wide variety of background and challenges. Some speakers addressed ways to support all students. Other speakers addressed ways in which distinct minority groups can best be supported including students with disabilities, veterans, students, and ethnic minorities. Most presentations given at the workshop have been uploaded to the workshop program page and are freely available to download.

Go to /sage2yc/studentsuccess/workshop2013/essays.html
Participants at the workshop submitted essays about what they are doing to support geoscience students in their education. Many of the ideas presented can be implemented in class right away. The ideas below are paraphrased versions of the strategies described in greater detail within the faculty-written essays.

Establish Strong Personal Relationships
Try to establish strong personal connections—between teacher and student, teacher and advisee, and between students—as early as possible in the semester. These relationships make a big difference in how students feel about the course(s), the teacher, and their understanding of course goals. Communicate that you want to see them work hard and succeed, and get to know a little about their backgrounds, goals or aspirations and life outside the classroom. When students get to know each other, they are more likely to look forward to and enjoy coming to class, set up study groups outside of class and become collaborative and active learners.

Source: Supporting Geoscience Student Success, by Anita Ho, Flathead Valley Community College
Create a Low-Pressure, Sociable Environment within Labs
Create an atmosphere within labs that fosters collaboration and active group work. Rather than grading lab work, consider assigning points for attendance and participation. Encourage students to work in groups of 2 or 3, and ask them to mix up the groups for each of the first few labs in the course so everyone gets to meet and work with everyone else. Eventually, regular groups will form. Having a weekly, low-pressure, sociable environment is conducive to student engagement and collaboration, and effectively motivates almost all students to contribute to and support their group's work.

Source: Supporting Geoscience Student Success, by Anita Ho, Flathead Valley Community College
Content Specific Show-and-Tell
Offer extra credit to students who bring back to class, after spring break or any time during the course, a photo of anything related to the discipline you are teaching. Ask the students to share the photo with the class, describe the feature(s) in it, and explain more about it in a way that is relevant to your discipline (e.g. in geoscience, how it was formed). In this way, the students will also learn something personal about each other (where his or her relatives live, what they do as a hobby when not in school, etc.). This is also an excellent review tool and a good way to connect classroom learning with real life experiences.

Source: Supporting Geoscience Student Success, by Anita Ho, Flathead Valley Community College
Online Discussion Board
Establish an online discussion board where students can ask other students for homework help. This activity encourages students to work together. Participation can be assured through grading and participation credits that require students to help each other work through assignments on a weekly basis. In order to prevent incorrect information from being propagated, the instructor monitors the discussion and intercedes as needed. One instructor found that after she implemented this assignment, students started earning higher grades on assignments and tests and they became more comfortable asking her questions.

Source: Activities That Support Student Success in Traditional and Online Introductory Geoscience Courses at Wake Tec by Gretchen L. Miller, Wake Technical Community College

Create Small Communities of Learning
All new and full-time students at Bunker Hill Community College are expected to enroll in a Learning Community Seminar (LCS). The LCS in Energy and Sustainability Management (ESM) was designed specifically for ESM students. The LCS includes faculty advising, critical thinking, success coaching, career exploration, peer-mentoring and community engagement. In 2010, the campus-wide LCS program experienced a year-to-year retention record that was 32% higher than the general student population.

Source: A New Geoscience Program in Energy and Sustainability Management by Kim Frashure, Bunker Hill Community College.

Additional Resources

Go to /integrate/programs/diversity/index.html
InTeGrate: Increase the Diversity of your Graduates

The Increasing the Diversity of your Graduates module from InTeGrate provides advice and guidance to departments and programs on recruiting, supporting, and preparing minority students in STEM disciplines. A big part of Supporting the Whole Student is creating a sense of community, showing students that there is a place for them in STEM. The module also features a collection of program profiles that address supporting minority and underrepresented students.

Go to /broadening_access/index.html
Broadening Access to the Sciences

Broadening Access to the Sciences aims to present ways in which faculty can increase minority involvement in STEM fields. Of particular note in this collection, is a set of case studies which outline a number of programs that can be used to support minority students in STEM education. Also of interest are materials from the fall 2011 workshop titled Learning and Teaching Physical Sciences in the Liberal Arts College and University: Identification of Supports for Student Success including posters which highlight ways in which some campuses have seen success in supporting students. A presentation from the workshop also outlines a rigorous research study conducted to learn more about factors that influence student engagement.

In the fall 2011 workshop titled Learning and Teaching Physical Sciences in the Liberal Arts College and University: Identification of Supports for Student Success, Lee Cuba from Wellesley College, shared a presentation titled "Using Mixed Methods to Understand and Assess Student Success (Acrobat (PDF) 2.4MB Nov14 11)". One of the goals of this study was to better understand students' transition from high school to college, and how students become academically and socially engaged. The researchers interviewed a set of 36 race-stratified and randomized students at each of 7 private institutions at various points during the students' 4 years at the schools (including one interview after graduation). The researchers found that engagement in classes is episodic and that engagement and grades are complexly and variably related. They also found that early engagement is beneficial and that delayed engagement can be very costly.