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Lacking foundation, minorities struggle in STEM fields

Students said campus culture and insufficient preparation often impeded success

Underrepresented minority students in science, technology, engineering and math — known as STEM fields — named lack of preparation, stereotyping and unsupportive learning environments as the three major challenges they face.

“As a collective, this is a struggle,” said Jamelle Watson-Daniels ’15, a black student concentrating in physics and Africana studies. “If the University doesn’t distinctly look to improve this, then these people are going to fall through the cracks, and that’s what’s been happening.”


Entering unprepared

In a poll conducted this fall by The Herald, one third of Brown students reported feeling unprepared to concentrate in STEM fields upon entering Brown. Students of certain races and ethnicities were disproportionately represented in that group — 30.2  percent of white students, 45.3 percent of black students and 61.2 percent of Hispanic students reported feeling  unprepared to concentrate in STEM fields.

Students who responded that they felt unprepared to concentrate in STEM fields were also likelier to receive financial aid. Only 25.1 percent of students not receiving financial aid felt unprepared to pursue STEM concentrations, compared to 42 percent of those who fund their education with some form of University or federal aid.

The “biggest problem starts in primary and secondary education,” said Abi Kulshreshtha ’15, an Indian-American concentrator in physics and economics.

David Hernandez ’16, who is originally from Colombia and moved to Central Falls, R.I., when he was 15 years old, said insufficient preparation harmed his academic experience in introductory courses at Brown.

Central Falls has one of the worst school systems in the state, he said, adding that on the New England Common Assessment Program, only 7 percent of students in the school were proficient in math and science.

Despite challenges in the classroom, Hernandez became “very involved” in school clubs and outside college prep programs. But entering Brown’s Program in Liberal Medical Education, Hernandez said he knew he would face difficulties in the classroom. He had never learned to study the way professors expected him to, he said.

In the fall of his first year, Hernandez enrolled in NEUR 0010: “The Brain: An Introduction to Neuroscience.” He got a 60 percent on the first exam and “didn’t know what was going on.”

“I had always gotten A’s in high school,” Hernandez said.

By second semester, the situation had deteriorated, Hernandez said — and he had begun feeling “anxious and depressed.” He struggled in both BIOL 0200: “The Foundation of Living Systems” and Math 0090: “Introductory Calculus, Part I.”

Though he originally intended to concentrate in neuroscience, Hernandez said his difficulties in introductory STEM courses prompted him to switch his concentration to human biology.

Bianca Duah ’16, a black student who is concentrating in human biology and Africana studies, also said she did not feel fully prepared coming into Brown.

“If I was taught well, I think that I would remember a lot of things (that I don’t),” said Duah in regard to her high school experience.

“A lot of the data says students are coming in unprepared, and I don’t think anyone is going to argue that,” said Charles Lu, director of academic advancement and innovation at the University of Texas at Austin. “Students coming from typically low-income communities and schools that are labeled as failing schools are going to come into college institutions behind the rest of their peers, especially in math and science.”

Both Hernandez and Duah participated in the Catalyst pre-orientation program run by the New Scientist Program. Catalyst is intended to help prepare incoming students to concentrate in science at Brown.

“If it wasn’t for the programs like Catalyst, I wouldn’t know (minority professors)” and would be “in a different position altogether,” Duah said.

Duah said 16 students from the Class of 2016 participated in Catalyst — a small fraction of the total number of minority students who enter Brown intending to concentrate in STEM.

“What about the others?” she said.


“Sense of self”

Students interviewed said their experiences at Brown are shaped by their learning environments — in which they said they often find themselves treated like outsiders.

“So the academic piece, that’s one thing, and then there’s the more psycho- or socio-emotional sort of piece that involves how you respond to your environment’s response to you. … You ... feel like the outsider,” said Joseph Browne ’11, coordinator of the New Scientist Program.

Professors can unintentionally say things that deter a student from a certain field or path, Browne said. For example, a professor may encourage a woman or minority student to go into teaching high school rather than pursuing research, he said.

“Those kinds of things chip away at your sense of self very quickly,” Browne said. “You become aware that this is not the same kind of advice and kind of interactions this person would have with someone who didn’t look like me.”

It “never even crossed my mind in high school that I was at a disadvantage in any way,” Watson-Daniels said. “When I got here, I was told I was at a disadvantage, and I’d never heard that before.”

Upon arriving, Watson-Daniels said, her approach to science and math changed entirely.

“I wouldn’t attempt the homework by myself because I was already under the impression I just couldn’t do it,” she said. “The flaw in helping people who are at a disadvantage is pointing out that they’re at a disadvantage if they didn’t know.”

Eventually, it reached the point where Watson-Daniels felt she couldn’t take exams.

“I’d get there and look around and feel like I didn’t know anything,” she said. Professors were confused by why she could do problems in office hours or on the homework but couldn’t do similar problems on exams, she said.

Her experience in science courses has frequently caused her to reconsider her decision to concentrate in physics, she said.

“Until very recently, I was convinced that there was something wrong with me and that maybe science just was not for me,” she wrote in an email to the Herald.

Sandra Kimokoti ’15 said interactions with other students can also negatively affect minority students in STEM fields.

These attitudes can manifest themselves in subtle ways, such as minority students not being picked as lab partners or not being included in group discussion, Kimokoti said.

“We’ve heard from Latino students and African-American students that fellow students don’t want to include them in study groups,” said Mitchell Chang, a higher education expert and professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. “They think they won’t be major contributors.”

“In class there is an assumption that I don’t have anything to say,” Kimokoti said. “I constantly put my voice out there to affirm that I do deserve to be here. In some ways, it’s been good because it’s put me in the professor’s face. But it gets tiring to have to prove every day that you deserve to be there.”


Faculty diversity

Several students said hiring more minority professors in STEM departments is vital to improving the experiences of underrepresented minority students.

“It limits your motivation when you realize there aren’t people like you in the field you want to pursue,” Duah said.

Watson-Daniels said the absence of minority professors harms all students — not just minorities.

“When you don’t see black professors in a classroom … as a white student, you don’t have the opportunity to learn from a black professor. So when in your life do you get the opportunity to learn that they have something to teach you?”

Mullings said hiring minority professors could be helpful, but that the professor must be “just as qualified as his peers,” rather than being hired merely to fill a quota.


“A scientist first”

Though the classroom experience poses distinct challenges, both Hernandez and Kimikoti described doing research at Brown this past summer as an enriching science experience.

Extensive research opportunities and spots in mentoring programs such as Catalyst are numbered, but the “ultimate goal”  is still to enhance the overall experience of every underrepresented minority student, Watson-Daniels said.

“Minority students shouldn’t be afraid of going into the sciences,” said Jesus Leyva ’16, an applied mathematics and biology concentrator from Mexico.

“It can be a struggle when you don’t have the background or you are in a room of people who know the information,” he said. But minority students should “embrace that difference and stick with it.”

“I see myself as a scientist first, then a minority group,” Leyva said.


A previous version of this article incorrectly identified David Hernandez ’16 as a student from Mexico. In fact, he is from Colombia. The Herald regrets the error.


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