Three women looking at their laptops and interacting with each other

The “leaky pipeline” in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM refers to the problem of students “leaking out” of the educational pipeline across K12 through post-secondary education. For example, 2008 data from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that only 4% of ninth graders ended up graduating with a four year degree in a STEM discipline. This problem is also compounded by issues of underrepresentation of minority students, especially Black and African American women, who are most underrepresented in science and engineering careers.

What can be done to stop the pipeline from leaking? To find out, we spoke with Dr. Martha Escobar, Professor of Psychology at Oakland University, who has led the creation of a range of community-based programs designed to increase representation of Black and African American students in STEM. Across six National Science Foundation (NSF) funded programs, Dr. Escobar and her collaborators are changing how students think about STEM careers and their identity as scientists.

These programs focus on the Black Belt region of the United States, and particularly in the state of Alabama. The programs, details of which can be found here, are designed to target high-poverty students in rural areas that have limited exposure and access to STEM. By focusing on these areas where needs are greatest, Dr. Esocbar and her collaborators can have a big impact on a student’s trajectory. 

Throughout years of running these community-based, immersive programs, Dr. Escobar and her colleagues have learned many lessons on what resonates best with students, and how to design programs to have the most impact on students. They specifically focus on the need to address the environment that students are learning in and strive  to change students’ expectations of science and their STEM identity. Dr. Escobar highlights that a key strategy is by building community programs that help to create supportive contexts where STEM identity formation can be cultivated. 

In our Learning Labs conversation with Dr. Escobar, she shared four key lessons for developing community programs to increase persistence of underrepresented minorities in STEM, which are summarized below.

  1. Curriculum is not enough

Peer community is the foundation of the programs Dr. Escobar and her colleagues build, going beyond only curriculum. Dr. Esocobar believes in the power of cohorts to create learning environments in which students are around like-minded peers who share similar life experiences. By leveraging the power of social learning, students begin to change their expectation of what a scientist or engineer looks like — it looks like them! Curriculum is still key, of course, and many of the programs are designed using project-based learning to get students working on projects that are meaningful to them.

  1. Connect with students’ reality

Part of the rationale underpinning the use of project-based learning principles within these STEM programs is to give students an opportunity to work on projects that are relevant to the communities they live in. For example, the BUILDERS program is a summer camp wherein students learn through inventing creative solutions to problems within their own communities. These types of approaches prioritize culturally-relevant pedagogy for students to help foster interest in STEM and motivation to engage with STEM across their schooling. Making learning purposeful and relevant is important to develop a strong STEM identity in students.

  1. Remember who the work is for

Part of what has made these programs so impactful for students is that they are designed for the specific populations of students they are trying to reach, rather than designing programs for the average student. To ensure that the programs are working for their students, Dr. Escobar and her colleagues ask students to evaluate the programs: what is working for them? What do they want done differently? This process also helps foster agency in the students to help them develop confidence and ownership over their educational and career journey. By doing so, identity with STEM grows, and students begin to see their future self as a role model.

  1. Good intentions don’t always work

Finally, it’s important for program designers to acknowledge that good intentions may not always produce the optimal outcomes for the students they are designing for. Throughout these programs, Dr. Escobar and her colleagues learned that keeping the students’ voice central to their plans was necessary to keep students engaged and maximize impact. For example, they learned that more is not always better when it comes to program elements; sometimes simple is better. They also learned that fully self-paced instruction may not always work for at-risk students. It can be beneficial to strike a balance with having a clear direction, but allowing for flexibility in the details of the program over time. Bottom line: listen to the students.

To learn more listen to our conversation and visit Martha Esocbar’s website to learn more about her work in STEM.

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Nicole Barbaro

As a research scientist at WGU Labs, Dr. Nicole Barbaro designs evaluation and validation studies of the education-based products at WGU Labs and their partner institutions, and is focused on improving student educational outcomes. She earned a PhD in psychology with a specialization in evolution and human development from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. In addition to her work at WGU Labs, she serves as the Communications Officer for the Human Behavior and Evolution Society and has published more than 40 scholarly articles in leading psychology journals.