TTU, TSU collaborate on study of STEM minority student success

Minority students majoring in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines perform better if they aren't singled out for preferential treatment in the classroom.

That's one conclusion from research findings developed by investigators at Tennessee Tech University and Tennessee State University under a Tennessee Board of Regents diversity research grant. The collaborative study sought to understand the experiences of racial minority undergraduates studying STEM subjects.

The research was completed by Matthew Zagumny, professor of counseling and psychology at TTU, and David Shen-Miller, assistant professor of counseling psychology at TSU in Nashville.

Further, the researchers found that minority STEM students performed better if they perceived that their university has a commitment to racial diversity in the classroom, among faculty and administrative staffers as well.

"Preferential treatment based on race is detrimental," Zagumny said. "It's almost the embarrassment of riches concept and, I think, a very human experience. But if you're in a near-solo status and given preferential treatment, you feel you have to prove that you're getting it for some other reason than being a racial minority. That creates stress, which affects performance.

"What we looked at were the sorts of psychological internal processes that were going on for these students and whether these processes have an impact on outcomes such as grade point average, self-esteem and stress," Zagumny said. "Self-esteem and stress are at least loosely related to performance in the classroom."

Shen-Miller said this study may be followed up with additional work to find out if the TTU-TSU results are consistent on a national level. The goal is to translate the findings into effective programs to maximize student success.

"Future work would be to expand this project to fill in some of the gaps that we noticed in our model and to find out if the model holds up against a national sample," he said. Future work also will explore females in STEM disciplines, and whether being a racial minority is more powerful indicator of outcomes than gender.

"We'd like to study the intersections of race and gender together to find out if one identity is more salient than another," Shen-Miller said.

The researchers conducted an online survey of almost 600 STEM majors at TTU and TSU. About 60 percent of them were from TTU and the remainder from TSU. In addition, researchers interviewed 15 students in order to develop a qualitative analysis of the results.

"Understanding the factors that help or hinder minorities who are studying STEM will allow administrators, faculty and other decision-makers to maximize the opportunities for academic success of these students as well as tap the potential of their talents," Zagumny said.