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IMPACT Plus - Racial Equity in the STEM Math Pathway

By Helen Burn posted 06-17-2022 11:35:16


I remember our outpouring of commitment to building racial equity in the fall of 2020 as the effects of structural and ideological racism were brought into relief through the twin crises of the pandemic and police killings of unarmed African Americans.


To be sure, the effects of structural racism were already well known by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color). Likewise, BIPOC students and colleagues have lived experiences with structural and ideological racism in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), while the various forms of racism remain hidden to racial groups that dominate STEM who hide behind the veneer of STEM disciplines being objective. Yet the numbers are clear: the needle has moved little around improving outcomes for BIPOC in STEM despite stated commitment. Furthermore, mathematics courses required for STEM continue to represent a major barrier for all students pursuing STEM degrees that can be felt more strongly by BIPOC. I want to emphasize that last point: Mathematic courses required for STEM degrees (henceforth the STEM math pathway) are a barrier for all students with disproportionate negative impact on BIPOC students seeking STEM degrees. And we all know that you can’t get a degree in STEM without passing your mathematics courses.


Increasing BIPOC student success in the STEM math pathway requires designing for racial equity—that is, designing and implementing programs, strategies and practices that disproportionately benefit BIPOC students. Indeed, colorblind approaches may “lift all ships” without reducing racial equity gaps or move the needle and, in addition, reinforce dominant norms and traditions leading to BIPOC underrepresentation in STEM. What does it mean to design practices that disproportionately benefit BIPOC students in the STEM math pathway? Identifying such practices was the goal of Transitioning Learners to Calculus in Community Colleges (NSF IUSE 1625918). We started with the assumption that multiple domains within the college need attention. In other words, there is no magic pill or shiny object that will lead to increased BIPOC representation and success in the STEM math pathway. Instead, BIPOC students benefit when their institution takes a comprehensive, institutional efforts focused on mathematics placement, STEM mathematics courses, instruction, out-of-class student support, and an overall ethos within the college that your institution is serious about increasing BIPOC student success in the STEM math pathway. The latter includes providing permanent funding for BIPOC student programs and sustained faculty development around culturally responsive teaching and to mitigate microaggressions that sadly permeate BIPOC student experiences. And because in our country race is associated with socio-economic status, institutions committed to BIPOC student success provide resources for students experiencing food or housing insecurity.


The ultimate goal of the TLC3 project was to develop a validated set of equity practices and an institutional self-assessment tool to support institutions in identifying and removing barriers for BIPOC students in the STEM math pathway. We also developed a web-based tool so that you can easily assess where your college is around implementing these equity practices. The practices identified should be viewed as a foundational set of practices, and more practices may be identified as additional research is conducted.


Our research focused on two-year college mathematics programs but you may find many of the practices relevant to other institutional types, such as regional colleges and universities. For example, the entryway to the STEM math pathway in many institutions and nearly all community colleges use mathematics placement, a process used to place students into their first mathematics course in the STEM math pathway. We identified two practices here that may disproportionately benefit BIPOS students:  first, giving students advising so that they understand the mathematics placement process and its implications and, second, using multiple measures, including high school transcripts, for placement. These two practices can have positive benefits because they can mitigate the inaccuracy of placement tests which results in a disproportionate number of BIPOC students placing into developmental mathematics. The goal is to have your placement process viewed by students as fair, which can build trust between BIPOC students and your institution. Being placed into developmental mathematics can be a setback for students arriving believing they are college-ready in math. When students believe they are being treated fairly, this can mitigate the negative effect of being placed into developmental mathematics.


Another challenge in the STEM math pathway is the sheer number of courses required and the typical instruction student encounter. Our project focused on the developmental to precalculus to calculus sequence. Our case study colleges made efforts to both improve their placement process, and shorten the number of developmental courses required. Another identified practice was for the mathematics program to review math course data disaggregated by race/ethnicity and gender. Clearly, any mathematics program wishing to improve BIPOC student outcomes needs to identify and work toward benchmarks or goals based on data. At my home institution, we receive an annual report showing placement and success in mathematics courses. This data has been invaluable to helping us establish baseline data and track progress as we make changes. Mathematics instruction has been well researched with many areas of improvement identified. In the precalculus to calculus sequence, one challenge is the sheer amount of content to cover, which impacts our ability to engage students in high-impact practices such as projects and deeper forms of active learning. Our research identified foundational practices leading to high-quality mathematics learning:  offering tasks with high cognitive demand and challenge, having students work together on problems, validating and answering student questions. We also developed a set of relational practices based on research suggesting the importance of faculty-student relationships and interactions to learning. We identified faculty expressing authentic care and welcomeness to engage. BIPOC students, given their underrepresentation in STEM and among faculty, may hesitate to engage fully with faculty. Welcomeness to engage relates to faculty signaling to students that their engagement is not only welcomed by desired. We also identified performance monitoring as an equity practice.  


Finally, students need support outside of class to succeed in the STEM math pathway. In one college in our study, they have an open study area in close proximity to faculty offices. This fosters faculty-student interactions around mathematics and, when positive, can disproportionately benefit BIPOC, in particular since help-seeking behaviors can be associated with a student’s identify in terms of race/ethnicity and gender. Overall, easy access to tutoring and faculty office hours are recommended, as are


Institutional commitment to racial equity that may be expressed differently, and sometimes not at all, within the different spaces in the college. My college, for example, is building an equity-focused strategic plan and recently received a Title III grant aimed to reduce racial equity gaps within courses and programs. Still, our college continues to be led both in the classroom and in administration by white colleagues, many of whom express commitment to increasing BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) student representation in STEM (science, mathematics, engineering, and technology) while failing to design for racial equity.


To reiterate, our current charge is to design for racial equity. The TLC3 grant provides concrete ideas to take back to your institution to meet our goal of achieving racial equity in the STEM math pathway. If you are interested in learning more about the TLC3 project, you can find our project grants page here or read more on my Curriculum Research Group hosted by Highline College.