Promoting STEM majors to Native American students

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Highlighting the community benefits of STEM majors may draw more Native American students to these fields.

Results from the first three years of a longitudinal study by Christina Moyer, a psychology graduate student at Northern Arizona University (NAU), other NAU faculty and staff, and colleagues at Montana State University, may have some insights about how to engage more Native American students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors.

Moyer and colleagues theorized that because STEM fields are usually portrayed as individually focused (picture the lone scientist) rather than directed toward communal goals, this portrayal goes against the values of Native American students. “I'm constantly surprised by what Native American students have to say. Interviews conducted in the spring of each year reveal how important communal goals are to so many,” says Moyer. “In fact, the main career goal students cite is to return to their homes to help their family and community.” 

Changing the misperception of Native Americans that scientific fields are not community-oriented could boost enrollment numbers in STEM majors, notes Moyer. The goal is to communicate to Native American students that science helps a variety of people and helps solve problems important to the community. “Students often perceive a lack of belonging for fields with which they are unfamiliar,” states Moyer. “Changing these perceptions could greatly enhance attendance in these fields.”

Moyer and her colleagues surveyed either first-year Native American students or transfer students entering the university for the first time. According to Moyer, surveying students before they are immersed in school and then later in their second semester allows for a comparison of how their perceptions of STEM fields changed. Researchers also survey the students’ career plans and whether they've used any additional school programs (such as Native American Student Services). 

Although data is still being collected and analyzed in this ongoing study, it appears that a major challenge for universities is to reframe STEM fields as being valuable disciplines for helping people.

--Kelly Zarcone