Community Building Keeps Students on the Scientifc Path

Tom Price is blogging for Miller-McCune.com from the 3rd annual Conference on Understanding Interventions That Broaden Participation in Research Careers.
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Community building is key to keeping students in scientific fields, participants in a conference on diversity in science said today. And the community must extend beyond academics to embrace students' social lives, the scientists said.

Research shows that minority college students are more likely to drop out when they don't feel membership in a group, said Brian Booton, program coordinator in the University of Missouri's Undergraduate Research Office.

Developing a "supportive community of peers," is central to a Missouri program for minority science students, Booton said.

The program places freshmen and sophomores into laboratory work, supports them with weekly group meetings that address academic issues and provides them with mentoring by upper-class students, and enriches their experiences with field trips. Focus groups with students who completed the program revealed the program fell short in community building by not adequately addressing the students' social needs.

So now a third of the weekly meetings address students' social lives with activities — some of which may seem simple or silly. A lounge in the Undergraduate Research Office has become a student hangout, for example. A scavenger hunt, a communication exercise based on Mr. Potato Head, a holiday party and a spring reception are among the activities students enjoy and use to build relationships, Booton said. Social events also are organized to build relationships between undergraduate and graduate students.

Now, "many students almost view the program as a club," he said.

Nightly dinners are "where it all happens" during Harvard's summer program for women and minority undergraduates, program director Gregory Llacer said.

The students' laboratory experiences are supplemented with seminars, small group chats with faculty and social events. The students live in the same residence hall and eat dinner together each night, with faculty often attending the dinners.

To learn science procedures, students must write proposals for their research and social activities. Each student in the program — called Program for Research in Science and Engineering — has to make an oral presentation at the end of the summer.

Compared with a control group of other Harvard undergraduates conducting research, PRISE students showed greater connection to their field of concentration and reported more positive experiences in the laboratory, Llacer said.

Students' "academic and social identity" is addressed during a summer research program for undergraduates at the University of California, Davis, according to Ana Corbacho, assistant director for higher education of the university's Center for Biophotonics Science and Technology.

The program begins with an intensive first week of laboratory experience, professional-development activities, team-building exercises and a workshop designed to challenge stereotypes.

Professional development, team building and lab work continue throughout the summer. The college students judged posters from a summer high school science program at the university. Assignments to two-person lab teams and larger work and study groups are made with diversity in mind, Corbacho said.

Surveys of students at the end of the program showed they felt more at ease in science studies and felt part of a group, Corbacho said. "I see students gain confidence," she said.

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