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How Black science majors succeed

Alan Flurry

University of Georgia life science and education researchers investigated the stories behind one of the most successful groups of science majors on campus: Black undergraduate students. Despite an array of additional challenges beyond their coursework, Black science majors are able to complete their science degree programs. Black students persist at a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic subgroup on campus for many of the science majors at UGA.

Using a framework based on the student skills, abilities and network of connections, the researchers focused on the strengths that Black undergraduates bring to their science majors at a research-intensive, predominately white institution (PWI). The goal of the research was to provide recommendations for faculty who want to support Black student success. 

The findings were published in the journal Life Sciences Education.

“Too often as educators, we look at the reasons why students struggle or fail, even though our goal is to identify new ways to support them,” said Julie Stanton, associate professor of cellular biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and lead author on the study. “Our research team wanted to flip the script – to focus on the ways academically-successful Black science majors succeed as way of supporting the success of all Black students.”

The research team collaborated with undergraduate co-authors, Black student researchers who were science majors at the time and who conducted interviews of other Black science majors in the final year of their undergraduate degrees. Stanton and co-author Darris Means, associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh, developed a partnership with the undergraduate researchers to be able to access and understand critical information about the expertise and lived experience of Black science majors. This partnership between students and faculty also ensured that the products of the research were relevant for taking action to build on the strengths of Black science majors.

“Our undergraduate research partners were essential in leading all aspects of the work,” Stanton said of the study. “The research participants trusted the students that we collaborated with, and they were able to instantly connect with them.”  

“Due to my experiences as a Black student in a PWI, I was able to navigate the best way to conduct the study and reach our target audience,” said Omowunmi Oni (B.S. ’19), a student member of the research team and co-author who is currently enrolled at the University of Florida College of Dentistry. “I knew the best way to reach out to students through their present involvement on campus.”

The study shares stories and situations fundamental to the experience of Black science majors at UGA that help shape their approach to success in courses. 

One direct outcome of the study was an implicit bias workshop for science faculty developed by the student team in collaboration with the Center for Teaching and Learning and the Office of Institutional Diversity, conducted by the students for over 50 science faculty members over 2020-2021. An online version of the workshop is being developed to allow more UGA faculty and faculty at other colleges and universities to learn from the undergraduate researchers.

“The workshops are another part of the really critical role our student leaders played in sharing the experiences of Black science majors with our faculty – to say, this is what we found in our research, and this is how to translate it to something meaningful, for our community,” Stanton said.

Primary findings from the study describe how Black science majors use their capital – their skills, abilities, and networks of contacts – to navigate the racial climate at a predominately white institution; how Black science majors use their internal strengths to succeed in their science majors; and that Black science majors create virtual and physical spaces where they can share their capital and thrive at a PWI.

The findings revealed what the researchers call a multiplier effect of supporting smaller groups or even individual Black science majors.

“The idea that Black students are so well-connected and networked, and so committed and compelled to share resources, support, and help with one another, should be inspiring to us as faculty and administrators,” Stanton said. “Sometimes we might feel overwhelmed about how we can contribute to meaningful change, but we learned that it’s really true, when you help one Black student, there are so many other students you are actually helping because of the rich connections they have to one another.”

“Being involved in this project allowed me to witness and realize the strengths and challenges I, amongst my peers, faced going to a PWI,” said Oni. “Things that I had normalized, like code switching and the active need to set an example for other Black students, allowed me to see just how much effort and commitment Black students face to succeed. It also highlighted that our success is communal – we create opportunities not only for our personal success, but for the new students to come.”

Participants in the study referenced the importance of formal organizations such as the Minority Student Science Association (MSSA) and the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), which involves faculty and staff. Participants utilized group text messages to coordinate informal groups and venture beyond their major subject areas, joining non-science organizations like the African Student Union for connections to other students and emotional support during college.

“Our research team recommends that faculty start by becoming aware of the strengths Black students bring to their science majors and the racial climate they experience at a PWI,” Stanton said. “As a first step, faculty can volunteer to engage in activities led by the excellent UGA organizations that Black students are already connected to, such as LSAMP and MSSA.”

Image: Students walk from the Lumpkin Street intersection with Baxter Street up towards the Miller Learning Center during class change. UGA photo.

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