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Mapping the social networks of undergraduate STEM students

• Authors: Adam Dilla, Zena Donovan, Dylan Neider, & Dustin Thoman

• Time & Location:
Western Psychological Association 97th Annual Convention | Sacramento, California
Fri, April 28, 2:15 to 3:45pm
Sheraton Grand, Downtown

• Abstract:
There are widespread racial disparities in many STEM fields, which occur as a direct result of differences in the way students select and persist in their college majors. One explanation for why certain students are more likely to persist in STEM is that they leave because they have a lower sense of belonging. This lack of belonging in science fields may result not only from in-class experiences, but potentially also broader differences in how people think about their social networks related to their science identities. Because social support is crucial to a student’s particular path and success in college, we compared the social networks of underrepresented minority STEM students (URM; African American and Latino/Hispanic) to those of students well represented in STEM (Caucasian and Asian).
Undergraduate students who had declared science majors (n = 239, 44% URM) were recruited from introductory physics, biology, and chemistry classrooms at a large Hispanic Serving Institution. Using a hierarchical mapping technique (see Antonucci), they were asked to “think about [their] major and experiences at school” and write the names of the members of their social support network. They wrote the relationship of each person to their name, and placed more important people near the center of the map, with less important people toward the periphery. We categorized each support person into a discrete relationship type: family, peer, or superior. Within peers and superiors, relationships were categorized as either academic or non-academic. We found that URM students listed more family members than did other students (F = 5.025, p = .026), and they also listed a greater number of family members relative to other categories of people. Meaning, while URM students did not list more total people in their network than other students (p > .8), they listed relatively more family members in comparison to superiors, peers, academics, and nonacademics (p’s = .066, .010, .106, .011). These findings suggest that, for URM students, family members make up a greater proportion of their school-related support system. This is important because, if URM students are more heavily influenced by their family when it comes to school-related identities, they likely have a harder time compromising between the cultural identities they have at home and the academic identities they have at school. This discrepancy can make it harder for them to feel like they belong in STEM fields, thus contributing to their lack of persistence and underrepresentation.

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