Lessons from Research: Centering Equity in Postsecondary STEM Education

March 12, 2024 | By Krystal Thomas, Ariel Deutsch, and Susan Bickerstaff

Photo of Palm Beach Student College working in a lab
A Palm Beach State College student working in a lab.

Despite increasing attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion in postsecondary STEM education, the field continues to see gaps in the participation and success of historically marginalized students (e.g., due to race or ethnicity, gender, first-generation status, and especially intersectionality). Broadly speaking, STEM tends toward meritocracy and competitiveness. Research has also shown the dominant approach to postsecondary STEM education has the effect of discouraging and diverting students of color and women.

Students’ daily interactions with peers, teaching assistants, and instructors may contribute to disparities. For example, most students and instructors in U.S. classrooms are aware of the stereotypes that pertain to particular groups in academic settings, especially among systemically marginalized students. Negative affective experiences can have adverse impact on participation, performance, and persistence.

In September 2023, the Collaborative brought together scholars with diverse research backgrounds to discuss improving online STEM course and college success for historically marginalized students. Our scholars included Kevin Binning, University of Pittsburgh; Roderick Carey, University of Delaware; Ann Edwards, WestEd; Claudia Escobar, MDRC; Carlton Fong, Texas State University; Felisha Herrera Villarreal, San Diego State University; Valerie Lundy-Wagner, California Community Colleges; Terrell Morton, University of Illinois Chicago; and Brandon Nichols, Olive-Harvey College.

These scholars’ areas of expertise include critical race theory, social-emotional learning, motivation/self-regulation, Black youth identity, and STEM instruction, among other areas. In this blog post, we share themes from the conversation and reflect on how we can leverage instructional practices to generate more equitable outcomes in postsecondary STEM education.

Sense of Belonging and Mattering

“Mattering” is necessary for cultivating students’ sense of belonging. Reflecting on the role of faculty and staff in shaping students’ experiences and sense of belonging, Carey referenced his research about how Black youth and students’ school interactions shaped their perceived mattering. Mattering, Carey explained, relates to one’s “perceived significance”—a feeling of being valued and relied upon by others—which can stem from domain-specific relationships, such as within family, community, and school. Mattering is multidimensional, and college and careers are not the only influences. A student may forgo belonging at school for another type of belonging in a social setting. For example, a student may perceive, “I don’t belong at this school, but I belong in my family, church, and community, and that’s enough.” These insights are valuable as the Collaborative continues its investigation into how to support faculty and institutions to create more inclusive online STEM course environments.

During the conversation, scholars generated three recommendations for improving sense of belonging in STEM:

  • Consider how instructors can show students that their success matters.
  • Disrupt deficit thinking and challenge stereotypes that instructors and students may hold about one another and themselves.
  • Facilitate students’ positive aspirations related to their college, career, and life goals (e.g., expected financial stability, relational and familial prospects, happiness, etc.)

To do this work effectively, faculty may need support. Escobar shared her research on how communities of practice can elicit collaboration among faculty and to develop and learn new teaching strategies to improve student experiences in their classrooms. Her research provides tactical guidance on how institutions can help faculty create learning environments that show students that they matter.

Agency and Motivation

“Agentic engagement” is related to enhanced motivation and achievement. During the meeting, Fong shared that instructors can play an important role in creating environments that foster student autonomy and agency, or “agentic engagement.” Agentic engagement refers to the role students play in cultivating their own motivation. This concept points to a set of learning strategies such as asking questions, expressing preferences, and requesting assistance.

Research shows that interventions in STEM courses can enhance students’ agentic mindsets and improve other related outcomes. In higher education, creating classroom norms and environments that explicitly scaffold and support student agency may be particularly important. Carey shared that these strategies may also help to counter negative, confining media or school influences that hinder how these students imagine, let alone actualize, their future selves (e.g., decisions on their college, career, and life goals).

Instructors can create the conditions to build agentic engagement by providing choices, inviting students to articulate their interests and preferences, and being responsive to those preferences. Just as many postsecondary educators have incorporated explicit instruction on growth mindset (the notion that intelligence is malleable), STEM instructors might similarly introduce students to the concept of an agentic mindset (the notion that motivation is malleable).


The type of help-seeking matters. Survey data collected at two Collaborative partner institutions showed relatively low levels of help-seeking behavior among students enrolled in online STEM courses.

Fong mentioned how he and his colleagues have found important differences between instrumental and executive help-seeking. Instrumental help-seeking focuses on requesting hints and clues to solve a problem independently and is associated with a mastery-orientation toward goals and learning. By contrast, executive help-seeking focuses on obtaining an answer and “relinquishes the help-seeker’s responsibility to independently solve the problem.” research shows that what matters to students’ achievement is not whether they seek help, but how and for what purposes they do so.

As instructors and administrators look to encourage instrumental help-seeking behavior, they must consider how students’ identities inform help-seeking. Stereotype threat is one important barrier to instrumental help-seeking. This concept refers to the idea that student performance will be judged in ways that confirm negative stereotypes targeting their group. Stereotype threat not only undermines course performance but may hinder students from attending office hours, tutoring, or accessing other conventional institutional supports. Affinity or interest-based groups can facilitate access to resources by encouraging students to find comfort among classmates who may share similar experiences and likely reduce the feeling of threat.

Why does this matter for the Collaborative?

The themes that emerged from this conversation with scholars about generating more equitable outcomes in postsecondary STEM education are already informing the next phase of the Collaborative’s work. In 2024, the Collaborative is designing and testing instructional and implementation resources to support students’ development of self-directed learning skills and mindsets in online STEM courses. As we develop these resources, we are paying attention to mattering, agency, and help-seeking as well as other features of the course environment that will facilitate the STEM success of students from historically marginalized groups.

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To learn more about the research by some of our experts, see:

Tags: Equity