Educators can help make STEM fields diverse – over 25 years, I've identified nudges that can encourage students to stay

Jen, a student I taught early in my career, stood head-and-shoulders above her peers academically. I learned she had started off as an engineering major but switched over to psychology. I was surprised and curious.

Was she struggling with difficult classes? No. In fact, Jen’s aptitude for math was so strong, she had been recruited as an engineering prospect. In her first year, her engineering classes were filled with faces of other women. But as she advanced, there were fewer and fewer women in her classes – until one day, she realized she was the only woman in a large lecture class of men.

Jen began to question if she belonged. Then she started to wonder if she cared enough to persist in engineering. Her quest to understand what she was feeling brought her to my psychology class.

Jen’s experience in engineering shows that human behavior is driven by a few fundamental social needs. Key among them is the need to belong, the need to feel competent and the need for meaning or purpose. These three motivations influence whether people approach or avoid a range of social situations, including academic ones.

What Jen experienced in engineering is called social identity threat – negative emotions aroused in situations where individuals feel their valued identities are marginalized or ignored. It raises doubts about belonging and depletes interest, confidence and motivation. In the long run, social identity threat may lead individuals to withdraw from activities altogether.

I am a social psychologist and the founder of the Institute of Diversity Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. For the past two decades, my research has focused on evidence-based solutions: How do we create learning and work environments that fulfill young people’s feeling of belonging, nurture self-confidence and connect their academic and professional pursuits to purpose and meaning? I’m particularly interested in the experiences of girls and women, students of color and working-class college students.

Connecting to the real world

With my team, I have been designing and testing interventions in classrooms, labs and residence halls to see if they protect young people against social identity threat in science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM – environments. My work shows that, just as a vaccine can protect and inoculate the body against a virus, features of learning environments can act as “social vaccines” that protect and inoculate the mind against noxious stereotypes.

In one study, we found that when teachers highlight the social relevance of math and connect it to social good, it makes a big difference to students. We followed almost 3,000 adolescents taking eighth grade algebra and tracked their progress for one academic year. Some teachers in our study illustrated abstract concepts using socially meaningful examples. For instance, exponential decay was explained using depreciation of car values or the dilution of medicines in the bloodstream. Others taught such concepts using abstract equations only.

We found students got excited and motivated when they could apply abstract math to socially meaningful problems. They got better grades, reported math was important to them personally and were more active participants in class. We also found that students working in small collaborative peer groups got better end-of-year grades than those working alone. These benefits were especially noticeable for kids of color.

The importance of role models

Another low-cost but powerful “social vaccine” is to introduce young people entering a STEM college program to a fellow student who is a couple of years older and shares their identity.