Research News

NSF funds College of Arts and Science and Peabody College collaboration to improve equity in STEM education

By Jenna Somers

Cynthia Brame, Heather Johnson, Cristina Zepeda

Vanderbilt researchers in the College of Arts and Science and Peabody College of education and human development recently received a three-year grant exceeding $280,000 from the National Science Foundation to collaborate on a study aimed at improving equity in large, introductory college STEM courses. The study will focus on understanding how and whether the use of learning assistants in biology and chemistry courses can support belonging and confidence in students from underserved groups.

LAs are undergraduate students with prior experience in a course who support students currently enrolled in the course. While LAs have been found to increase students’ sense of belonging on average, their effect on students from underserved groups is not yet known. The Vanderbilt researchers will investigate the impact of LA programs on women, racially and ethnically marginalized groups, and first-generation students.

“This study will help to address the important need for greater equity in STEM education. We will gain insights on how to structure LA programs that address the needs of all students, including those historically underrepresented in STEM classes and fields, which could positively affect student retention and success in these courses,” said Cynthia Brame, assistant professor of the practice of biological sciences and lead investigator on the study.

Brame is joined by Heather Johnson, associate professor of the practice of science education, and Cristina Zepeda, assistant professor of psychology and human development, co-investigators on the study. Together, they plan to evaluate the effects of LAs on students’ sense of belonging, science self-efficacy, and identity as members of the scientific community across student populations in introductory STEM courses. The also will characterize the practices that underserved students describe as important for LAs to influence their sense of belonging and science self-efficacy. Findings will enable the researchers to adapt the LA program to support better practices.