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Comment: Fostering a sense of belonging in historically underrepresented populations to increase retention rates

by Reni Joseph, chair, ACS Committee on Minority Affairs
November 23, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 39

A mug of Reni Joseph.
Credit: Courtesy of Reni Joseph
Reni Joseph

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields are key to innovation and progress in today’s world. However, successful adoption of these fields in society has largely been hampered by a lack of representation of historically underrepresented students. This lack of diversity hurts STEM and society as a whole because we miss out on a diversity of opinion and thinking. Thus, we must ask ourselves: How do we increase the retention and success of underrepresented students in STEM?

A sense of belonging within societal structures is a basic human need. In fact, it plays a crucial role in the retention and academic success of underrepresented students in STEM fields. However, these students feel isolated in STEM because they lack a sense of belonging in a mostly homogeneous academic environment. Students are more likely to persevere in their education when they’re part of a community in which they feel accepted. They’re less afraid to engage in collaborative learning and as a result reach their full potential. The truth, though, is that many historically underrepresented students often experience feelings of isolation and alienation in STEM classrooms, which negatively affects their aspirations and diminishes the benefits that society could accrue if a sense of belonging could be fostered.

I saw the construct of belonging firsthand when I was invited to present at Rice University by Facilitating Advances in Chemistry for Equity and Transparency for Scholars( FACETS). FACETS was founded by a group of graduate students with a faculty lead to promote diversity, representation, and inclusion and is funded by the Chemistry Department. The graduate students demonstrated passion and dedication as they created a welcoming environment for historically underrepresented and first-generation students.

A sense of belonging within societal structures is a basic human need.

I found out that FACETS also successfully collaborated with local schools from neighborhoods with lower incomes. This partnership led me to ponder the potential impact of encouraging chemistry departments across the US to adopt the FACETS model. What if the departments, in collaboration with local industries, invited guest speakers to serve as relatable role models for historically underrepresented students? The departments could also provide students with supplies for outreach, equip university and high school teachers with STEM resources, and provide transportation to visit local industries. A model like this could benefit historically underrepresented students, offering them a powerful and fulfilling sense of belonging while substantially improving retention and community building.

It is important to inspire high school students at an early stage to acquire an appreciation and interest in STEM, and the American Chemical Society, with help from local sections, is positioned to do so. For example, including middle and high school students during ACS’s National Chemistry Week and Chemists Celebrate Earth Week celebrations can expose students to the field of chemistry at an age that is suggested to be the most propitious to embrace STEM. ACS can also work to ensure that teachers from school districts with lower resources have better access to ACS resources through communities like the American Association of Chemistry Teachers. And eligible students have access to programs like Project SEED.

We must reach students early, maintain contact, keep them well informed, and most importantly, get them excited about ACS’s various programs and resources. We can introduce them to free web resources to enhance their knowledge on core subjects so that they do not fall behind when they register for college. We can also educate high school students about career opportunities or majors and what it takes to be successful in STEM.

FACETS and mentorship programs within the chemistry community can foster belonging by connecting peers and helping them integrate into chemistry classes. They build networks of valuable resources, including tutoring services that improve self-esteem, motivation, and well-being, all of which in turn boost retention, success rates, and inclusivity. By establishing mentorship programs led by students and faculty, similar to the ACS Scholars and ACS Bridge Programs, historically underrepresented students connect, receive academic support, and gain confidence to pursue a STEM career. This approach increases diversity in STEM and creates a more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and innovative future.

It is urgent that educational institutions and STEM communities recognize the importance of belonging and pursue the creation of an environment where all students thrive, regardless of background. The issue of underfunded school districts not adequately preparing students for college-level STEM coursework is a complex and systemic problem, but everyone can play a role to minimize these inequities and disparities.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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