A Community of Practice: Supporting Low-Income Transfer in STEM Introduction

Emily Halvorson-Otts
Innovation Showcase

Student access and success are foundational to the community college mission. The learning paradigm proposed by Barr and Tagg (1995) initiated the student success movement, which paved the way for the completion agenda in the 2000s. However, only approximately 26 percent of community college students transfer to a four-year institution (Sansing-Helton et al., 2021). The situation is even bleaker when we evaluate the STEM fields. According to the Community College Research Center (2022), low-income community college students are less likely to transfer to a STEM field, and only 14 percent of community college students as a whole will earn a bachelor's degree in a STEM field. The 14 percent degree attainment is strikingly low, considering that 75 percent of community college students in STEM disciplines intend to earn a STEM baccalaureate degree (Mooney & Foley, 2011, as cited by Sansing-Helton et al., 2021).

According to data from the U.S Census Bureau, Pew Research Center, and Sandia National Laboratories (McGee, 2022), White Americans make up 69 percent of the STEM workforce, Asian or Asian Americans 13 percent, those of Hispanic descent 7 percent, and African Americans 9 percent. Meanwhile, depending on the career field, females occupy 14 to 47 percent of STEM jobs.

Interestingly, a study identified that Black, Hispanic, and White students declare their pursuit of a STEM degree at similar rates; however, 58 percent of White students obtain a STEM degree, while 43 percent of Hispanic students and 34 percent of African American students earn the same degree (Riegle-Crumb et al., 2019). The gap in degree attainment is shocking when one considers that ~40% of White students, ~60% of Hispanic, and ~70% of African American students do not achieve their intended STEM degree. On a slightly brighter side, community colleges serve significant populations of underrepresented and low-income students; however, as mentioned earlier, few community college students are transferring and earning their bachelor's degrees in a STEM field. Community colleges still have much work to do to achieve our mission of student access and success for STEM transfer students.

With these statistics in mind, two Hispanic-Serving Institutions are partnering to increase student success for STEM transfer students. Through this partnership, Pima Community College (PCC) and University of Arizona (UAZ) are increasing the persistence and graduation rates of academically talented low-income community college students pursuing STEM majors. While the project is ongoing, initial results are promising. The following two interventions implemented by PCC and UAZ improved STEM student metrics.

Interventions and Innovations

PCC and UAZ implemented a transferrable model to address the low transfer and graduation rates of low-income, academically talented, and diverse community college students pursuing STEM majors. The partnership is supported by an National Science Foundation S-STEM grant—Building Community, Creating Connections, and Bridging Cultures: Asset-Based Support for STEM Students Transferring from a Hispanic Serving Community College—more commonly known as the Pima-UAZ STEM Bridge program.

The Pima-UAZ STEM Bridge program provides an average of $6,000 in scholarship money for each PCC STEM transfer student in three cohorts of 30 determined to be Pell eligible. Within the cohorts, 54 percent identify as a racial/ethnic minority and 64 percent identify as a first-generation college student. Additionally, 44 percent self-identify as a gender underrepresented in STEM fields (e.g., female, non-binary, trans). All three cohorts have transferred to UAZ. Ninety-five percent of the students persist in a STEM field, with some on track to graduate this year. Pima-UAZ STEM Bridge is, therefore, helping to increase the number of underrepresented and low-income STEM students who persist and transfer to a university.

A central tenet of the Pima-UAZ STEM Bridge program involves creating a Culturally-Responsive Community of Practice (CRCP) between the two institutions. The concept of a CRCP dedicated to community college STEM faculty and students combines several innovations that support low-income and underrepresented student populations. These innovations include, but are not limited to, culturally responsive training for PCC and UAZ faculty mentors, peer mentors, summer research experiences, a student success STEM transfer course, and career capital. The interventions positively impact the students' sense of belonging in a STEM field as well as their STEM identity, or how they perceive themselves or fit within the STEM community (Singer et al., 2020). This article focuses on culturally responsive training for PCC and UAZ faculty mentors and the program's impact on students' sense of belonging and community within STEM.

Culturally Responsive Training

Culturally responsive training and teaching include a pedagogical approach and instructional techniques that integrate student cultures as well as the life experiences of both students and instructors into the classroom learning environment (Mintz, 2022). As defined by O'Leary et al. (2020), culturally responsive STEM classrooms involve social identity awareness, understanding student barriers to learning, and modifying teaching practices to support all students. The Pima-UAZ STEM Bridge program aims to shift faculty culture through culturally responsive training and the resulting CRCP. Through the CRCP, faculty center their approaches on students' lived experiences while valuing the students' unique cultural knowledge, strengths, and motivations for pursuing STEM careers.

Faculty Mentors

Bridge program faculty mentors from PCC and UAZ participated in almost 20 hours of culturally responsive training in the CRCP over several months. Most training occurs before they meet with their STEM Bridge student mentees. The training involves core themes of communication, cultural awareness, philosophy, transfer challenges, and tools. Subsets of these themes include active listening, stereotype threat, implicit bias, microaggressions and microaffirmations, intersectionality, growth mindset, and mentor agreements. Based on program survey evaluations, the mentors found that the CRCP created a safe space to learn, grow, and be uncomfortable with complex topics and allowed for opportunities to reflect and listen to their colleagues. For example, one faculty mentor wrote,

Listening to everyone's experiences with their mentees continues to be useful to suggest new coping strategies and topics of conversation. The role-play activity helps us put ourselves in the position of the student and see things from a different perspective. 

During the academic year, participating students met with their PCC and UAZ faculty mentors at least twice a semester. The PCC faculty mentors provided a support system at Pima, while the UAZ faculty mentors helped to guide and answer questions about transitioning to the University of Arizona. Further, the UAZ faculty mentor also serves as a lifeline and mentor once the student transfers. One student said the following about their relationship with their mentor:

I loved having a faculty mentor from UA. It was a great way to see what it's like to be an academic, network with people in or close to my field, and have great conversations on an intellectual level that is hard to find in everyday life. It truly changed my life and perception. Also, the scholarship money was a lifesaver!

As part of the program's evaluation, faculty mentor feedback surveys are conducted in the spring semester for each cohort. All cohorts generally provided positive feedback about their Pima Community College mentors. For example, 96 percent of cohort 1, 89 percent of cohort 2, and 94 percent of cohort 3 students indicated that their PCC mentor helped them feel more confident. In addition, 96 percent of cohort 1, 89 percent of cohort 2, and 97 percent of cohort 3 students viewed their mentor as a role model. It is also important to note that the evaluation team asked cohort 1 participants to rate their faculty mentoring experience in year one as a combined rating for both PCC and UA faculty mentors. Realizing that the students could have drastically different mentoring experiences between PCC and UA, the evaluation team asked cohorts 2 and 3 to rate their faculty mentors separately. That said, cohort 1 data is not drastically out of alignment with cohorts 2 and 3 data. For additional survey data, see Figure 1.

Figure 1: PCC Cohort 1, 2, and 3 Mentoring Experience Outcomes

Cohort 2 responses regarding their faculty mentor are lower than the other cohorts. These findings may be due to the specific mentors, a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic and general feelings of isolation, or something else. It is valuable to note that cohort 2 occurred during the 2021-2022 academic year while many faculty and students were still partially remote. That said, gaps are seen in each cohort's perceptions of their mentors regarding networking and acquiring resources.

STEM Student Community

Students frequently expressed that a sense of belonging and community was one of the most valuable aspects of the Pima-UAZ STEM Bridge program. As expected, many students mentioned faculty mentors' positive impact on their sense of belonging and community.

For example, 96 percent, 85 percent, and 97 percent of the students in the respective cohorts indicated that their mentor helped them feel like they belonged in STEM. Specifically, one of the students said the following about the program: "The support, hands down. The feeling of belonging. The feeling that someone truly believes in you and your success." Culturally responsive training may have positively impacted these students' sense of belonging in STEM, which can help increase their persistence in STEM careers. These findings align with O'Leary et al. (2020).

The attributes influencing the STEM Bridge students' sense of belonging and community are varied and complex. But, not surprisingly, the cohort model was the most common factor contributing to the student's sense of belonging and community, consistent with findings from other cohort models and the learning community literature (Johnson et al., 2020). There is more to learn here, though, as students listed instructors as positive and negative factors in their sense of belonging in STEM.

Future Plans

The Pima-UAZ STEM Bridge grant has officially ended at PCC, with 98 percent of participating students transferring to the University of Arizona. Meanwhile, the grant continues at UAZ as the university tracks the cohorts' progress. Preliminary data indicates that most of the first cohort will graduate soon, with eight students in that cohort graduating within two years of transferring. Further, 95 percent of students across the cohorts persist in STEM. The grant's proposed goals of increasing persistence, transfer, and graduation rates for low-income, underrepresented, and academically talented community college students pursuing STEM majors appear to be on track to achieve its goals.

As with any grant, the challenge is sustainability. The grant team is, therefore, looking into philanthropic support while leveraging the newly created Pima Center of Excellence (CoE) in Sciences and Engineering for support and resources. The primary purpose of the CoE is to create a culture and community of STEM professionals to support STEM students in their educational journey. Further, the strategic plan for the CoE includes expanding student-faculty mentoring opportunities and providing culturally relevant training to all science and engineering faculty. Implementing, expanding, and standardizing these innovations will require resources, including time, finances, and partnerships. Looking forward, PCC and UAZ are also discussing how to package our culturally relevant training so that STEM faculty nationwide can participate in a CRCP to support diverse populations of students entering STEM fields.


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Community College Research Center. (2022, July). Community college STEM pathways. https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/media/k2/attachments/community-college-stem-pathways.pdf

McGee, V. (2022, June 22). Guide to diversity and inclusion in STEM. Computer Science.org. https://www.computerscience.org/resources/diversity-inclusion-in-stem

Mintz, S. (2022, March 24). The other CRT: Culturally responsive teaching. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/higher-ed-gamma/other-crt-culturally-responsive-teaching?utm_source=Inside+Higher+Ed&utm_campaign=314a8e4afb-DNU_2021_COPY_02&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1fcbc04421-314a8e4afb-236841558&mc_cid=314a8e4afb&mc_eid=ff5d3fcd99

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Sansing-Helton, B., Cover, G., & Beton Jr., C.E. (2021). Increasing STEM transfer readiness among underrepresented minoritized two-year college students: Examining course-taking patterns, experiences, and interventions. Frontiers in Education, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2021.667091

Singer, A., Montgomery, G., & Schmoll, S. (2020). How to foster the formation of STEM identity: Studying diversity in an authentic learning environment. International Journal of STEM Education, 7(1), 57. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-020-00254-z

Lead image: Pima Community College cohort 3 students in the Pima-UAZ STEM Bridge Program

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.