Expanding Inclusion in STEM

Lessons from Growth Sector’s STEM Core Program

July 2021
Oscar Cerna, Marco Lepe, Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow

The fast-growing fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are providing opportunities for well-paying jobs for millions of U.S. workers. Community colleges play an essential role in helping students acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to join the STEM economy, especially students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and first-generation students. For example, millions of community college students are currently enrolled in developmental math classes to prepare for college-level classes such as calculus, a critical requirement in a STEM-focused degree. But very few of these students will make it to and enroll in the courses that lead to a STEM degree. This includes a disproportionate number of students of color, who are overrepresented in but less likely to pass developmental-level courses; and women, who are underrepresented in college-level math courses despite passing developmental-level courses at higher rates than men.

In recent years, several organizations have been focusing on improving underserved students’ access to and success in STEM majors or areas of study. In 2019, MDRC partnered with one of these groups, Growth Sector, to study the implementation of the organization’s STEM Core program at three community colleges: Ohlone College and Santa Ana College in California, and the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) in Maryland.

STEM Core aims to build student engagement and interest in STEM-based careers through an academic, yearlong program that (1) accelerates the completion of developmental and college-level math courses; (2) emphasizes the real-world context in STEM curricula and instruction; (3) creates a cohort-based learning community for students; (4) provides intensive student supports; and (5) provides paid internship opportunities. Growth Sector’s overall STEM Core network currently includes more than 30 institutions across five states. This brief, which was supported by Arnold Ventures, provides a summary of lessons learned from MDRC’s implementation study that can further inform the work that college leaders, practitioners, and other STEM education stakeholders are doing to make STEM programs more inclusive and responsive to the interests and needs of a diverse student population.

Perspectives from the Field: Implementing STEM Core and the Student Experience

The STEM Core model centers on engaging students from populations that are underrepresented in STEM fields and creating pathways toward degree completion and employment. For example, the program recruits students who enter college needing more math preparation to be successful in STEM classes and then provides the added support they need to complete those classes. STEM Core staff members collaborate with other campus departments to promote the program, such as during freshmen orientation, to identify and enroll students interested in pursuing STEM majors.

A core component of the STEM Core model is placing students into accelerated developmental and college-level math courses that are completed in a shorter than usual timeframe. This allows students to quickly progress toward and complete a calculus course. Students are placed into cohorts that advance through these courses as a group, and they receive added supports to handle the condensed, intensive coursework. In interviews, students identified these program features as important draws to enrolling in STEM Core.

Another key component of the model is integrating real-life career scenarios with academic coursework. At Ohlone College, for example, students in the engineering class collaborate in small groups to propose solutions to humanitarian and environmental issues, receive peer and instructor input on their proposals, and then create working prototypes and document project management activities. At the same time, math instructors provide opportunities to apply lessons to these career-based activities by aligning the math curricula with the engineering coursework as the year progresses.

Students and staff members interviewed at the three colleges in the study also underscored the importance of each program’s dedicated student support specialist. The support specialist works one-on-one with students, attends the STEM Core classes, arranges college and career readiness workshops, and helps students access internships. One instructor described the support specialist as “the glue that keeps everything together.”

The COVID-19 pandemic—which occurred partway through the study—compelled STEM Core programs to pivot to meet the rapidly changing needs of their students, as classes shifted to a virtual format. Students had mixed feelings about online-only coursework. Some said they were having difficulty learning and retaining coursework content, while others appreciated the flexibility that online courses provided in terms of work schedules, homelife, and travel time. Program staff helped students stay on track by providing them with take-home lab kits, assisting them with virtual lab simulations, and requiring increased participation in online message boards.

Lessons for the Field and Considerations for Strengthening Student Participation in STEM

The STEM Core model is aimed at increasing students’ participation in STEM education and career pathways. Additional research is needed to assess its impact on improving student outcomes, including STEM Core course enrollment and completion rates and transitions into STEM majors. Current STEM Core and other programs working with students from traditionally underrepresented populations might consider the following lessons for strengthening participation and developing effective program features.

Key Lessons

  • Students traditionally placed in developmental education courses can succeed in accelerated STEM pathways. Many of the students participating in STEM Core are recruited directly from developmental-level math courses. Growth Sector’s prior research shows that many students recruited in this way successfully completed a calculus course in one year. This aligns with recent institutional efforts that suggest that enrolling students into college-level courses and providing added support—rather than merely assigning them to standard developmental math coursework—can improve outcomes.

  • Active learning approaches can help build student interest and engagement. One of the critical challenges to increasing STEM enrollment is students’ fear of math and their previous lack of success in math courses. Many participants in the STEM Core program started out with similar fears but said in interviews that working with other students and applying their mathematics learning to group classroom activities helped them feel more comfortable and engaged.
  • Students and staff emphasized the importance of academic support and out-of-classroom activities. Pairing course content with advising and tutoring as well as with activities such as professional workshops and field trips to STEM-related companies was cited by students and program staff alike as key to students completing the program. These out-of-classroom opportunities helped students connect their coursework with real-world applications.
  • Cohort-based instruction and community learning increase interactive participation. Many students said that building a learning community with their cohort helped them stay actively engaged in the program. Students from across the three colleges in the study appreciated the opportunities to connect with fellow students, such as in workshops, group tutoring, and student-led study sessions. Additional site-based features, such as an academic counselor who saw all STEM Core students at Santa Ana College, and a set of instructors at Ohlone College who taught students across both program semesters, were noted as well.

Considerations for Strengthening Student Participation in STEM

  • Emphasize the relevance of program activities to career development. STEM programs must continue to find ways to connect program experiences to students’ lived experiences—especially for students who may not see themselves represented in STEM fields. This includes engaging students in hands-on or project-based learning that connects to the real-world issues addressed in science, public health, and other STEM disciplines.
  • Develop handoffs and supports for program alumni. While many STEM Core students successfully completed a calculus class and finished the yearlong program, passing additional higher-level courses remained a challenge. Growth Sector is assessing several ways to address this, including starting the program earlier—during prospective participants’ high school years—lengthening program duration, and building stronger partnerships with four-year institutions to help STEM Core community college students successfully transfer to universities as STEM majors.
  • Expand internship opportunities and participation. STEM Core internship participation was limited. Many students said it would be difficult to travel to and from the internships that were offered while working at outside jobs and going to school. Leveraging campus resources such as internship and career centers, matching internships to local workforce needs, and pursuing remote internship opportunities could create a more inclusive program. Colleges might also consider developing on-campus STEM internship opportunities. For example, CCBC offers STEM Core students a paid cybersecurity internship housed in the college’s information technology department.
  • Expand efforts to recruit and enroll students from underrepresented populations. Although further research is needed to analyze the program’s effectiveness in targeting low-income, nontraditional, and rural students, preliminary program data show that many STEM Core programs have higher rates of enrollment for non-Asian students of color relative to the program’s college demographics. Notably, there is still an overrepresentation of men in most programs, and the number of students who participate each year has remained relatively small across the board since the program’s inception in 2012. Program leaders and college administrators might consider building stronger partnerships with equity and diversity offices both on campus and in the local communities to promote participation by women and develop strategies to bolster overall recruitment.

Responsive, career-connected programs like STEM Core have the opportunity to get students into STEM majors early on in their college experiences. But getting them there is just the beginning. The challenge ahead: Provide students—especially those who traditionally have been underrepresented in STEM fields—with the means and the support necessary to stay on track, and offer them academic experiences that grab their interest, connect them to real-world applications, and empower them to build a more diverse and inclusive STEM economy.