Promoting Success of Underrepresented Students in Science: Strategies, Approaches, and Lessons Learned

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 18–19, 2016

Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College
Atlanta, Georgia

As STEM faculty at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York (CUNY), we teach a diverse student population (see Over half are students of color, and 40% are black or Hispanic. About a third are first generation college students and about a third are immigrants, many speaking English as a second or third language. About 70% percent of our undergraduates are transfer students and more than half are Pell Grant recipients. Notably, about 35% of our students are STEM majors, and many are from ethnic and sociocultural groups historically underrepresented in STEM and healthcare fields.

Brooklyn College is a very rewarding, but also a very challenging, place to teach. Our diversity is a great strength of our institution. We have the opportunity to bring about change and help diversify the STEM and healthcare fields. At the same time, however, many underrepresented STEM students face challenges that may deter them from entering into or persisting in these fields. As faculty, we embrace the challenge of educating our unique students.

The authors teach in different subject areas, including microbiology, molecular and cellular biology, and developmental psychology. One of us teaches a college readiness course and runs a weekly, peer-led research workshop for minority honors students. What we have in common is our desire to improve the persistence and performance of our students in STEM courses by enhancing their intrinsic motivation.

ARRAS Framework – Gail Horowitz

Intrinsic motivation has been defined as the drive to pursue knowledge for its own sake (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Intrinsic motivation is enhanced when students are given the opportunity to choose what to study (autonomy), when students are exposed to content relevant to their lives (relevance), when students feel connected to others (relatedness), when students engage in the practices of research scientists (authenticity), and when students pursue investigations whose outcomes are not known (suspense) (Blumenfeld, Kempler, & Krajcik, 2006; Horowitz, 2014). When viewed together, the curricular features of Autonomy, Relevance, Relatedness, Authenticity, and Suspense make up a motivation framework that we have termed the ARRAS framework.

In this paper, the authors will describe how they use the ARRAS framework to enhance the intrinsic motivation of their students: developmental psychology students who work with computer-simulated children who develop in real time (relevance, relatedness, suspense); molecular biology students who select course content (autonomy, relevance, relatedness); microbiology students who investigate their urban metagenome (relevance, authenticity, suspense); and minority honors students who choose, design, and conduct research projects (autonomy, relevance, authenticity, suspense).

Developmental Psychology – Louise Hainline 

For many undergraduates, once general education courses are done, classes in psychology are the STEM classes most likely to be taken as electives. Introduction to Child Psychology, a second level developmental psychology course, is taken by students from a wide range of majors, stages in college, and academic skill levels. A key goal for the class is to apply course concepts about the development of children to their majors, personal lives, communities, and future careers, particularly in terms of roles played by genetic influences, neurological development, and socio/cultural environmental factors. The textbook, a standard survey of the field, is an e-text with embedded quizzes so that students can assess their understanding of material as they study to minimize content overload, particularly key for lower-division students. A feature of the e-text is that the instructor can monitor “time on task” and check on how performance in the class is related to time spent (or not spent) on content mastery.

The course uses a team-based format to enhance content learning and important teamwork skills. Teams are constituted for the duration of the semester and team members actively support one another in mastering course material. Often team relationships provide not only academic support, but also friendships during and after the class, creating a community that is important on a commuter campus (relatedness). The course is structured according to the flipped classroom model and students are required to learn the material before class. Lecturing is restricted to small, strategically placed mini-lectures. For each set of readings, reading assurance tests are taken, first by each student and then by teams. During class, teams engage in various activities.

A computer simulation called My Virtual Child (MVC), which requires each student to raise a virtual child from birth to age 18, acts as a lab for the course. Students find MVC a meaningful and memorable experience that links course material with reflections about their own parenting, including cultural differences in child-rearing practices, as well as their aspirations as future parents and professionals (relevance). As the ultimate outcome for each child is not known until the child is a young adult, there is also a motivational component (and often some competition among team members) about the final outcome (suspense). Finally, several weeks before the final exam, students are given a set of news articles on aspects of child development and asked to discuss connections between the articles and course material (relevance). They may prepare with other students (relatedness), but exams are taken individually without notes.

Molecular Biology – Peter Lipke

A typical molecular biology course, taken primarily by STEM majors, is content-heavy. Like other content-focused courses, there is often a compulsion for the instructor to cover every detail, often leading to “death by PowerPoint.” The lecturer presents one PowerPoint slide every minute and students become passive recipients, expected to memorize an overwhelming number of terms, images, graphs and tables. This approach reinforces the idea that the course’s purpose is for students to get an A, with much of the subject matter forgotten after the exam.

Changes in an instructor’s tactics can lead to heightened student attendance, engagement, and achievement of course learning objectives. Specifically, a series of in-class techniques can encourage active participation in discussions and give students some control and ownership of both subject matter and exam content. These tactics are based on mandatory and rewarded participation, which leads to student-initiated discussions and group-building assignments.

In my biology courses, a key tactic for engagement is to reward student inquiry and comment. I give a token (a colored piece of paper) to each student who asks or answers a question. “I don’t know” is the only non-rewarded response. The student writes her or his name and the date on the piece of paper, and turns it in after class. I tally the tokens, and use them to allocate participation credit at the end of the semester. I also keep a list of non-participating students and then direct questions or comment opportunities to them in subsequent classes.

Another tactic is team-based problem solving, followed by a presentation by a randomly assigned team spokesperson. I set a topic for discussion or a small in-class problem to teams of 3-5 students (relatedness). After a work period of typically 5-10 minutes, I assign the spokesperson based on an irrelevancy, such as: the student born closest (or farthest) from this room; the student who admits to being the oldest or to having the most cousins; or the student wearing a color closest to orange. The spokesperson gets the participation token for the group summary.

A third way to give students a sense of empowerment is to assign them each to write an exam question as weekly homework, with the promise that some of these will be used on future exams (authenticity). Questions are posted on a Blackboard wiki. This exercise forces students to review class content, and focus on important, or exam-worthy, concepts.

While there are quantifiable outcomes using elements of the ARRAS framework, students’ greatest gains can be more difficult to measure. These include student expressions of satisfaction and community-building among our diverse students. One consequence of the participation reward system is student-initiated discussions and questions (autonomy, relevance). This often leads to discussions of areas of interest, such as the relative fitness of sickle-cell anemia heterozygotes in malaria-prone areas vs. Brooklyn; or why we can’t yet cure Ebola or Zika (relevance). A serendipitous outcome from the randomized assignment of group spokespersons is that the students get to know each other better and find common ground despite their diverse socioeconomic and cultural experiences (relatedness). This familiarity builds teams and study groups that persist into subsequent courses. A third benefit is time saved for me as instructor in writing exams as I use, modify, and supplement selected student questions. Importantly, students have a stake in and perform better on exams, feeling that the exams test the most important materials.

Microbiology – TR Muth

The study of microbiomes has skyrocketed over the last 10 years, creating an opportunity to bring the excitement of microbiomes and metagenomics to students, and providing training in the scientific process through their engagement in authentic research. Using a course-based undergraduate research experience (CURE) model, we established the Authentic Research Experience in Microbiology (AREM) microbiome project at CUNY. AREM is a modular research experience that allows students to design experiments to reveal the diversity of their local environmental microbiomes. The AREM microbiome project provides the necessary framework and tools to characterize microbial communities, while actively involving students in sample collection and metagenomic data analysis. These microbial communities are local to the campus environment where students live, study, and work (relevance).

The incorporation of the AREM project into undergraduate biology courses across CUNY has allowed students to engage in the scientific process. Students work with their instructors to ask questions about the local microbial communities on their campus and develop hypotheses relating to the diversity of these communities and how they might be affected by human activity or environmental changes (autonomy, authenticity). Students take part in designing and implementing microbiome sampling and DNA extraction protocols, including trouble-shooting issues when they arise (suspense). Students extract DNA from their environmental samples (usually surface swab, soil, fresh water, or marine samples), record metadata for the sample, and send their DNA out for sequencing. The raw sequence data are analyzed and the relative abundances of taxa present in the sample are quantified. The students’ work in data analysis can lead to new hypotheses and experimental approaches for future projects (authenticity, suspense). Students working with microbiomes have an opportunity to use new and powerful methods that have changed the landscape of genomic, microbiological, and ecological research. These tools give students access to explore the microorganisms in the environment with quantitative analyses and at a level of detail that was not possible until recently (authenticity).

Peer-Assisted Team Research – Lori Sims

Undergraduate research is one of the “high impact” practices that lead to improved retention in college and in STEM majors (Kuh, 2008; LoPatto, 2010). In an effort to involve more underrepresented Brooklyn College students in scientific research, and get them conducting research earlier, we have created a model called Peer-Assisted Team Research (PATR). PATR builds on the concepts of Peer-Led Team Learning and Supplemental Instruction, but the focus is on the research process instead of specific course-related concepts. Peer-led teams design and conduct a series of increasingly complex research studies on interdisciplinary topics, ranging from the effects of social stress on salivary cortisol levels to designing novel and cost-effective ways to remove microplastics from local waterways (autonomy, relatedness, authenticity).

PATR is a basic curricular template and is readily adaptable to a variety of institutional settings: general education and introductory major’s courses, honors supplements to STEM classes without labs, embedded into lab courses, and co-curricular activities such as science clubs. The main components of PATR are: engaging with a real-world, cutting-edge, and socially-relevant issue or topic, which students are introduced to through an accessible article from popular media (e.g. Scientific American, TED Talks, RadioLab); dissecting a carefully-chosen professional article on the same topic, a process that involves student teams creating concept maps of the introduction (to orient students to the research topic, removing the need for prerequisite courses) and drawing cartoons of the method section (comic strips provide a visual of what the experiment actually looks like); designing an experiment (teams design and run their experiment and analyze the data); and drawing conclusions, which includes presenting and discussing “3 steps forward” about the research topic (to encourage students to think about broader implications in terms of ethics, feasibility, applicability, and policy issues) (autonomy, relatedness, authenticity, suspense).

As students participate in more PATR modules, they gain experience in designing and carrying out experiments, analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and presenting their findings. In the process, they report increases in seeing themselves as “scientists,” becoming more engaged in science and more motivated to remain in the STEM pipeline. PATR’s interdisciplinary nature provides students the opportunity to see science as an interconnected collection of fields and disciplines. The teamwork prepares them for careers as scientists, where collaboration is a normal occurrence. PATR students begin to feel confident as researchers as they develop a collection of highly applicable lab skills, which prepare them to be more engaged, more thoughtful, and more inquisitive mentees in a faculty lab.


Blumenfeld, P. C., Kempler, T. M., & Krajcik, J. (2006). Motivation and cognitive engagement in learning environments. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 475-488). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Horowitz, G. (2014). The intrinsic motivation of students participating in a project-based organic chemistry laboratory curriculum. In D. Sunal, C. Sunal, E. Wright, C. Mason & D. Zollman (Eds.), Research Based Undergraduate Science Teaching (pp. 333-378). Charlotte: Information Age Publishing.

Kuh, G. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

LoPatto, D. (2010). Undergraduate research as a high-impact student experience. Peer Review, 12(2), 27-30.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of instrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

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