Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) studies create workers ready to take on today’s most complex problems. Students of these subjects undergo universities’ most grueling, challenging courses to revolutionize the important aspects of our lives. It’s no wonder there are many job openings for STEM graduates.
Chico State has undertaken the task of not only increasing minority enrollment, but also paving a clear path to graduation and employment for underrepresented students. While one of Chico State’s goals is to ensure that all students achieve professional success, helping support minority success in STEM studies requires special attention and accommodation.
David Hassenzahl, the dean of the College of Natural Sciences, has seen firsthand that Chico State has welcomed greater diversity on campus in the past few years. He believes in the actions the University is taking to increase diversity within all campus programs, noting how in his two and a half years at Chico State, he “sees more diversity in the halls of campus and in the classrooms.” These actions have contributed to a 15 percent rise in non-white students at Chico State since 2008.
"By telling little girls they are pretty and not smart, and telling little boys they are strong and not smart, we are shooting ourselves in the foot."
Greater diversity means more perspective and expanding opportunities to reach additional populations.
Hassenzahl is working to making Chico State’s STEM studies more inclusive. Because of this, he supports making STEM studies available to everyone and is doing his part to make Chico State’s STEM studies more inclusive.
A large obstacle to diverse students joining STEM studies is the lack of diverse inspirational figures in STEM’s history, Hassenzahl said. He believes many minorities could have been inspired to reach new heights in STEM fields, but since there are fewer diverse role models due to lack of integration in the past, many are discouraged today.
By opening dialogue about increasing diversity within STEM, STEM leaders can gain better understanding about how to boost the appeal of such programs within underrepresented groups and implement changes to reverse current trends. If STEM leaders can understand how to boost the appeal of STEM and implement changes, it could tap into the potential of even more confident, capable minds than those currently in the field, he said.
According to the Campaign for College Opportunity, as of 2016, California’s Latino population forms the second greatest population in the state. Yet, out of the 10 states with the largest Latino population, California’s Latino population ranks last in bachelor’s degrees in engineering and computer science and second to last in bachelor’s degrees in health. Additionally, Hispanic students have historically fallen nine percent behind the four year graduation rate at Chico State. These statistics show how California’s higher public education fails to effectively serve the state’s Latinos and Hispanics.
“Usually students have a good social network that they can tap into for financial support,” Fox said, highlighting the difference between traditional students’ resources as compared to foster care students’.
The U.S. Department of Education and other groups nationwide are working to address these problems. The designation of Hispanic-Serving Institutions, which are colleges, universities, or districts where total Hispanic enrollment constitutes a minimum of 25 percent of the total enrollment, allow these institutes to qualify for federal grants to improve their infrastructure. California also continues to appropriate funds in the form of grants and scholarships for Latino students in public universities to choose certain disciplines like STEM while in college.
At Chico State, Interim Assistant Director of the HSI Initiatives Teresita Curiel works to integrate Hispanic students into Chico State’s community to help them graduate. She says the HSI Initiative accomplishes these tasks by creating a welcoming environment here in Chico, focused on establishing equitable status, high graduation rates, student retention and an optimal college experience. Chico State has been a certified Hispanic-Serving Institution since 2014, when one in four students identified as Hispanic, Latino, or Latina. By fall 2016, that percentage had grown to 30 percent.
HSI schools in California are leading the way in efforts to bring multicultural students into STEM career paths, Curiel said. For other Hispanic-Serving Institutions, data will show results from these efforts as time progresses and students continue to achieve.
One large program at Chico State that provides academic services to underrepresented STEM students is the Chico STEM Connections Collaborative, or CSC². This service, funded by a $4.2 million grant from the US Department of Education, supports students with academic help, peer mentoring, undergraduate research and community college transfer support.
Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA), a support program of CSC², focuses on helping historically underrepresented students study STEM subjects. Paul Villegas, director of the MESA Engineering Program at Chico State, explains how amenities like the open lab with tutors, computers and hangout rooms help approximately 300 students who are signed up for the program. Its main goal is to prepare and assist students for required courses like physics and calculus, and build students’ professionalism.
Villegas is pleased with the progress Chico State has made toward welcoming and supporting historically underrepresented students through this program. The approach that has helped, he says, is taking a “let’s teach how to swim,” instead of the traditional “sink or swim” approach in STEM. With help from grants, services and support from officials like the CSU chancellor, he believes California is ahead of the rest of the nation in effective student assistance, especially for STEM studies and for minority students.
MESA is not the only student assistance organization Villegas leads. He also works with Latino Tech Careers (LTC), which is similar to MESA in its mission to help historically underrepresented students develop their professional selves and pave the path to a career. LTC also prioritizes community outreach and giving back by requiring students to donate their time to those in need. Villegas’ work supports his belief that with a rising Hispanic population in the United States, it is a “business imperative” to accommodate these students with in-demand STEM studies.
These services are providing valuable help to young professionals on their path to success, Villegas said. Another unique program, headed by Professor Lori Holcombe, teaches students taking difficult calculus classes to focus on working with others for success. This program, a summer course of the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), is what she calls a “summer calculus boot camp,” or “four weeks of math hell.”
During these four weeks, LSAMP pays for students’ housing and food while they undergo her boot camp. They receive assignments and must learn to understand difficult mathematical concepts without help from Holcombe or her teaching assistants. The purpose is to encourage students to create teams and learn concepts with each other.
This course forces students to overcome any stigmas, prejudices, or hesitations they have toward each other to accomplish real learning and success. Race, sexuality, background, and religion all fade away when the task at hand requires 100 percent from every mind available, she said. The only trait that matters about anyone in this course is how hard they are willing to work toward the goal. Her course has produced students able to critically approach problems and succeed.
Holcombe notices a disconnect between all students and choosing a path of STEM studies.
“Nationally, no one wants to be a nerd,” she explains. This reflects an overall need to encourage students to pursue STEM studies and another cultural discouragement for underrepresented students according to Holcombe.
Many believe that America’s youth are raised to prioritize the wrong traits, and Holcombe explains that “by telling little girls they are pretty and not smart, and telling little boys they are strong and not smart, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Chico State’s mission to bring minority students to the forefront of innovative STEM studies has made the University a major player and role model for inclusive universities according to these important Chico State staff and faculty members. In 2010, before Chico State was designated a Hispanic-Serving Institution, Forbes ranked Chico 15th nationally in a list of the best schools for minorities pursuing STEM degrees. Since then, the University has continued this effort through the strategies mentioned before. These actions show that Chico State and the California State University system are striving to raise the bar for integrating diversity nationally, and hopefully future results continue to show this inspiring trend of success.