From University of California-Santa Cruz (US) : “Statistical analysis quantifies how chemistry undergraduates benefit from graduate student diversity”

From University of California-Santa Cruz (US)

July 15, 2021
Allison Arteaga Soergel

Julia Martin prepares a solution as part of her chemistry research. Martin graduated in 2019, but during her time at University of California-Santa Cruz (US), she participated in the Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program through the university’s STEM Diversity Office, which works to support underrepresented students in STEM fields. TA’s also play an important role in classroom success for undergraduate students, as a new statistical analysis shows.

Diversity among graduate student teaching assistants (TAs) may be among the most essential factors in retaining underrepresented minority undergraduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, according to statistical evidence from a new study set to publish in the August issue of the Economics of Education Review.

A team of economists and chemists at University of California-Santa Cruz (US) gathered and analyzed data from more than 4,000 students in general chemistry labs at the university over a five-year period to show that—among undergraduate students who were Latinx, Black, Native American, Native Alaskan or Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander—course drop rates decreased from 6 percent to 0.5 percent, and pass rates increased from 93.6 percent to 98.4 percent when these students were assigned a TA who was also a member of a racial or ethnic minority group.

“There are just not that many interventions that make that much of a difference in education,” said Economics Professor Rob Fairlie, the senior author on the paper. “I thought we would find something, but I was surprised that the effect was so big.”

The study controlled for variability in individual teaching and learning abilities and also found no effect of TA-student pairings on course grades. This led the paper’s authors to conclude that the large demonstrated changes in drop and pass rates likely result from how TA-student interactions influence a student’s decision of whether or not to stick with a course.

“One huge implication of this study is that sometimes people question whether the instructor or TA can alter student decisions, and I think we clearly document that,” said Daniel Oliver, lead author of the paper who is now a senior research fellow at Tulane University (US). Oliver worked on the study while completing his Ph.D. in economics at UCSC.

Statistics aligned with lived experience

The most significant trend driving the paper’s results was specifically how Latinx students benefited from having a TA of the same ethnic background. David Delgadillo, a graduate student and former TA in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department at University of California-Santa Cruz (US), said he has felt a sense of validation from the study’s findings.

“For me, being Latino in STEM and having gone through the process as a student myself and then transitioning into that teaching role, I can say that I think it’s easy to be intimidated in these courses, especially if you don’t have family members or friends that have gone through the process,” he said. “But with TAs, that first initial interaction with somebody that you feel represents you or represents a struggle that you’ve gone through really lowers the entry barrier into being a successful student in these classes.”

As a TA, Delgadillo said that he always worked hard to create a welcoming environment in the classroom and to boost student confidence because he understood how much pressure students might be under, particularly if they came from marginalized communities.

“There’s this extra level of stress and this thought process of ‘I need to perform well and do everything perfectly, or my one opportunity to move up the social ladder is done,’ and that’s the complex that you can sometimes go into it with as a student,” Delgadillo said. “I think what really helps is being welcomed into that course by somebody who can understand that sense of pressure. Someone who lets you know that it’s okay and that you’re going to make mistakes and struggle a little bit, but if you keep going and keep pushing, you’ll eventually persevere.”

The new paper demonstrates how economists can contribute to conversations around these issues by helping to quantify the impacts of what students and TAs are experiencing.

“As economists, our training is to do statistical work with these big data sets and carefully set up analyses that can affirm many personal stories in chemistry and the sciences,” said Rob Fairlie. “And our interest is in trying to create equity.”

Insights for breaking down barriers

Statistics from the National Science Foundation (US) in 2015 showed that, while Latinx, Black, Native American, Native Alaskan or Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander people represented 26 percent of the U.S. adult population, people from these groups collectively accounted for about 13 percent of the nation’s highest degree holders in science and engineering and made up 10 percent of the workforce in related fields. These disparities in representation can have profound economic impacts, since careers in science and engineering tend to be higher-paid.

Glenn Millhauser, a distinguished professor and chair of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department at University of California-Santa Cruz (US), said he hopes the new study’s results will help higher education institutions provide better support for students from minority communities who are entering science-based fields. Millhauser was a coauthor on the paper, along with chemistry lecturer Randa Roland, and both helped to design the study.

“We want to provide a meaningful sense of inclusion, along with instruction that leads to real success, so that students feel part of the STEM community and are provided with the tools for more advanced studies and degrees,” Millhauser said.

The new paper indicates that one way universities can help to break down barriers to entry in STEM fields is through continued improvements in recruiting and support for graduate student instructors and faculty from diverse backgrounds. And, ultimately, all instructors, regardless of their ethnic or racial backgrounds, must be accountable for understanding and adapting to the needs of their students.

A’Lester Allen, a doctoral candidate in physical chemistry who has been a TA for general chemistry and other courses, said he would love to see increased representation among professors, graduate students, and staff. However, he says it’s also important to ensure that the responsibility for student success is not placed disproportionately upon instructors from minority communities.

“I think what needs to happen is a little soul-searching by everyone to build an understanding of what it’s like from the perspective of historically disadvantaged students coming into these classes, so that the instructors can see all of the barriers in the way that students see them,” Allen said. “Maybe then those barriers can be removed.”

For more information on diversity in the sciences at University of California-Santa Cruz (US) and related undergraduate and graduate student resources and support programs, please visit the Science Division’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion page and the Office of STEM Diversity Programs website. The Office of STEM Diversity Programs at University of California-Santa Cruz (US) is an umbrella office that includes programs funded by the National Institutes of Health (US), the National Science Foundation, and UCOP, as well as state-funded and donor-supported programs.

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UC Santa Cruz (US) Lick Observatory Since 1888 Mt Hamilton, in San Jose, California, Altitude 1,283 m (4,209 ft)

UC Observatories Lick Automated Planet Finder fully robotic 2.4-meter optical telescope at Lick Observatory, situated on the summit of Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose, California, USA.

The UCO Lick C. Donald Shane telescope is a 120-inch (3.0-meter) reflecting telescope located at the Lick Observatory, Mt Hamilton, in San Jose, California, Altitude 1,283 m (4,209 ft).
UC Santa Cruz (US) campus.

The University of California-Santa Cruz (US) , opened in 1965 and grew, one college at a time, to its current (2008-09) enrollment of more than 16,000 students. Undergraduates pursue more than 60 majors supervised by divisional deans of humanities, physical & biological sciences, social sciences, and arts. Graduate students work toward graduate certificates, master’s degrees, or doctoral degrees in more than 30 academic fields under the supervision of the divisional and graduate deans. The dean of the Jack Baskin School of Engineering oversees the campus’s undergraduate and graduate engineering programs.

UCSC is the home base for the Lick Observatory.

UCO Lick Observatory’s 36-inch Great Refractor telescope housed in the South (large) Dome of main building.

Search for extraterrestrial intelligence expands at Lick Observatory
New instrument scans the sky for pulses of infrared light
March 23, 2015
By Hilary Lebow

Astronomers are expanding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence into a new realm with detectors tuned to infrared light at UC’s Lick Observatory. A new instrument, called NIROSETI, will soon scour the sky for messages from other worlds.

“Infrared light would be an excellent means of interstellar communication,” said Shelley Wright, an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego (US) who led the development of the new instrument while at the U Toronto Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (CA).

Shelley Wright of UC San Diego with (US) NIROSETI, developed at U Toronto Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (CA) at the 1-meter Nickel Telescope at Lick Observatory at UC Santa Cruz

Wright worked on an earlier SETI project at Lick Observatory as a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate, when she built an optical instrument designed by University of California-Berkeley (US) researchers. The infrared project takes advantage of new technology not available for that first optical search.

Infrared light would be a good way for extraterrestrials to get our attention here on Earth, since pulses from a powerful infrared laser could outshine a star, if only for a billionth of a second. Interstellar gas and dust is almost transparent to near infrared, so these signals can be seen from great distances. It also takes less energy to send information using infrared signals than with visible light.

Frank Drake, professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and director emeritus of the SETI Institute, said there are several additional advantages to a search in the infrared realm.

Frank Drake with his Drake Equation. Credit Frank Drake.

“The signals are so strong that we only need a small telescope to receive them. Smaller telescopes can offer more observational time, and that is good because we need to search many stars for a chance of success,” said Drake.

The only downside is that extraterrestrials would need to be transmitting their signals in our direction, Drake said, though he sees this as a positive side to that limitation. “If we get a signal from someone who’s aiming for us, it could mean there’s altruism in the universe. I like that idea. If they want to be friendly, that’s who we will find.”

Scientists have searched the skies for radio signals for more than 50 years and expanded their search into the optical realm more than a decade ago. The idea of searching in the infrared is not a new one, but instruments capable of capturing pulses of infrared light only recently became available.

“We had to wait,” Wright said. “I spent eight years waiting and watching as new technology emerged.”

Now that technology has caught up, the search will extend to stars thousands of light years away, rather than just hundreds. NIROSETI, or Near-Infrared Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, could also uncover new information about the physical universe.

“This is the first time Earthlings have looked at the universe at infrared wavelengths with nanosecond time scales,” said Dan Werthimer, UC Berkeley SETI Project Director. “The instrument could discover new astrophysical phenomena, or perhaps answer the question of whether we are alone.”

NIROSETI will also gather more information than previous optical detectors by recording levels of light over time so that patterns can be analyzed for potential signs of other civilizations.

“Searching for intelligent life in the universe is both thrilling and somewhat unorthodox,” said Claire Max, director of UC Observatories and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. “Lick Observatory has already been the site of several previous SETI searches, so this is a very exciting addition to the current research taking place.”

NIROSETI will scan the skies several times a week on the Nickel 1-meter telescope at Lick Observatory, located on Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose.