Executive Summary

Executive Summary

ROOTS of STEM Success:

Research on North Carolina Women and Underrepresented Minorities in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics across the UNC System.

Elizabeth Stearns, Ph.D.
Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, Ph.D.
Stephanie Moller, Ph.D.
Martha Cecilia Bottia, Ph.D.

Department of Sociology UNC Charlotte
9201 University City Blvd. Charlotte, NC 28223

Melissa Dancy, Ph.D.

Physics Education Research Group UC Boulder
Boulder, CO

DeeDee Allen, Ph.D.

Wake Technical Community College Raleigh, NC

The Roots of STEM project has received support from the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 0969286 and 1420363. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. Copies of research papers summarized in this document are available by request from the authors. Address all inquiries to elizabeth.stearns@uncc.edu

The ROOTS of STEM Project is a multi-method study that investigates the individual, family, and institutional factors that influence students’ decisions to pursue college science, technology, engineering, or mathematics majors at any of the 16 campuses in the University of North Carolina system. This project is particularly focused on identifying the various sources of the underrepresentation of women and certain underserved minority groups in STEM majors. The model below captures the interactive dynamics that our project investigates.

The study includes quantitative and qualitative data designed to test this conceptual framework where underrepresentation of women and men in STEM fields is accounted for by student characteristics interacting with their experiences in secondary and post-secondary schools.

We conduct this research in multiple phases. The first phase began in 2010 with the creation of a large longitudinal dataset (named the NC Roots of STEM 8-16) in cooperation with the UNC General Administration, NC Department of Public Instruction, the College Board, and Duke University’s North Carolina Educational Research Data Center. This dataset follows members of North Carolina’s entire 2004 public high school graduating class who enrolled at any campus in the UNC system in the fall of 2004. Administrative records for each person from middle school to high school and into their public university years provided the foundation for this dataset. In 2015, we added administrative records from students who had attended community college and then transferred to a campus of the UNC-system.

Another phase of the project has involved interviews with students. In 2013, we interviewed 316 seniors enrolled in one of the 16 campuses of the UNC-system in order to better understand students’ experiences with math and science in middle and high school and in college. Several years later, in 2015, we interviewed 200 students who were enrolled at NC community colleges, stated an interest in STEM fields, and planned to transfer to four-year colleges. In the fall of 2018, we conducted follow-up interviews with these transfer students, as well as with other students who have successfully transferred from community colleges to the four-year university system (but were not interviewed in 2015).

Our study has generated important insights regarding the pathways that students take toward majoring in STEM fields before and after they matriculate to UNC campuses. In this Executive Summary we highlight only a few key findings. They are categorized into three sections: student characteristics and experiences, the role of the structural and cultural conditions in middle and high schools, and the role of structural and cultural conditions in universities. Below is a brief overview of these findings, followed by a selected bibliography.

Student Characteristics and Experiences

  • Forming an intention to major in STEM during high school is a critically important predictor of the probability of actually majoring in STEM, especially for women.
  • Students who perform better in their high school math and science coursework are more likely to choose STEM majors in college.
  • Taking physics during high school is positively associated with students’ choice of STEM as a college major. Taking physics is especially important for young women’s likelihood of declaring a STEM major.
  • Gender differences in college academic performance in STEM compared to non-STEM subjects do not contribute to the gender gap in STEM major declaration. Instead, women tend to cite doubts in their ability to complete a STEM major and men tend to discuss their love for non- STEM subjects as reasons to choose non-STEM majors.

The Role of Structural and Cultural Conditions in Secondary Education

  • The proportion of female math and science teachers at a particular high school has a powerful effect on female students’ likelihood of declaring and graduating with a STEM degree, but no impact on male students’ STEM outcomes. Effects of attending high schools with a higher proportion of female math and science teachers are largest for female students with the highest math skills, for White female students, and for their chances of declaring a major in male- dominated physical science and engineering fields.
  • Attending racially isolated White high schools depresses students’ chances of majoring in STEM.
  • High schools with a STEM-focused program attract students who are highly interested in math and science: once that selection is controlled for, graduates of these specialized high schools are as likely to major in STEM as are graduates of other high schools.
  • Exposure to racial segregation in high school at both the school and classroom level affects students’ college freshman grade point averages, and has an especially negative relationship with the achievement of disadvantaged minority students.
  • A focus on accountability through standardized testing as currently practiced in NC secondary schools undermines the learning and teaching process. For students from lower performing high schools, in particular, test preparation often narrows curricula and distorts teaching practices, leaving these students less prepared for college STEM success.
  • Because the enjoyment of math and science is an important condition for Latino/a students’ pursuit of STEM majors, teachers play a very influential in the process. Latino/a students are more likely to major in STEM during college if they were educated in high schools where they studied with teachers who worked in collaborative professional communities, and in schools where teachers had a high level of satisfaction with their jobs.

The Role of Structural and Cultural Conditions in Post-Secondary Education

  • Women are less likely than men to report a sense of belonging in their STEM classes. This pattern is less noticeable in the biological sciences than in physical science or engineering fields.
  • Women of color are the least likely female demographic group to perceive that their professors cared about them and their learning, while there are no racial differences among male students’ perceptions.
  • Students report a marked preference for interactive instruction, but also describe their STEM coursework as being primarily lecture-based.
  • Professors who have a more interactive pedagogy are perceived as being more caring.
  • Perceiving that professors care about them is associated with students’ sense of belonging in STEM.

Selected Publications and Working Papers

Bottia, Martha, Roslyn Mickelson, Jason Giersch, Elizabeth Stearns, and Stephanie Moller. 2018. “The role of high school racial composition and opportunities to learn in students’ STEM college participation.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 55 (3):446-473. Link.

Bottia, Martha, Elizabeth Stearns, Roslyn Mickelson, and Stephanie Moller. 2018. “Boosting the numbers of STEM majors: the role of high schools with a STEM program.” Science Education 102 (1):85-107. Link.

Bottia, Martha, Elizabeth Stearns, Ashley Parker, Roslyn Mickelson, and Stephanie Moller. 2015. “The Relationships among High School STEM Learning Experiences and Students’ Intent to Declare and Declaration of a STEM Major in College.” Teachers College Record 117(3): 1-46. Link.

Bottia, Martha, Elizabeth Stearns, Roslyn Mickelson, Stephanie Moller, and Lauren Valentino. 2015. “Growing the Roots of STEM Majors: Female Math and Science High School Faculty and the Participation of Students in STEM.” Economics of Education Review 45: 14-27. Link.

Giersch, Jason, Martha Bottia, Roslyn Mickelson, and Elizabeth Stearns. 2016. “Exposure to School and Classroom Racial Segregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg High Schools and Students’ College Achievement.” Education Policy Analysis Archives 24(32): 1-28 Link.

Mickelson, Roslyn, Jason Giersch, Elizabeth Stearns, and Stephanie Moller. 2013. “How (and Why) NCLB Failed to Close the Achievement Gap: Evidence from North Carolina, 1998- 2004.” ECI Interdisciplinary Journal for Legal and Social Policy 3 (1); Article 1. Link.

Moller, Stephanie, Neena Banerjee, Martha Bottia, Elizabeth Stearns, Roslyn Mickelson, Melissa Dancy, Eric Wright, and Lauren Valentino. 2014. “Moving Latino/a Students into STEM Fields: The Role of Teachers and Professional Communities in Secondary Schools.” Journal of Hispanic Higher Education 14(3): 3- 33. Link.

Rainey, Katherine, Melissa Dancy, Roslyn Mickelson, Elizabeth Stearns, and Stephanie Moller. 2018. “Race and gender differences in how sense of belonging influences decisions to major in STEM.” International Journal of STEM Education 5(1):10. Link.

Rainey, Katherine, Melissa Dancy, Roslyn Mickelson, Elizabeth Stearns, and Stephanie Moller. 2019. “A descriptive study of race and gender differences in how instructional style and perceived professor care influence decisions to major in STEM.” International Journal of STEM Education 6(1). Link.

Stearns, Elizabeth, Martha Bottia, Eleonora Davalos, Roslyn Mickelson, Stephanie Moller, and Lauren Valentino. 2016. “Demographic Characteristics of High School Math and Science Teachers and Girls’ Success in STEM.” Social Problems 63 (1): 87-110. Link.

Stearns, Elizabeth, Martha Bottia, Jason Giersch, Roslyn Mickelson, Stephanie Moller, Nandan Jha, and Melissa Dancy.  “Do relative advantages in STEM vs. non-STEM grades explain the gender gap in selection of a STEM major in college?  A preliminary answer.” Forthcoming in American Educational Research Journal Link

Valentino, Lauren, Stephanie Moller, Elizabeth Stearns, and Roslyn Mickelson. 2016. “Perceptions of Future Career Family Flexibility as a Deterrent from Majoring in STEM.” Social Currents 3 (3): 273-292. Link.