Researchers in the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations investigate decision-making among students entering the STEM field

July 19, 2023 - Emily Jodway

A group of researchers from the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations are investigating the effects of social environment on a student’s decision to choose the STEM field, as well as how this influences their likelihood of sticking with their decision through college and into a future career.

Assistant professor Amanda Chuan, along with a team of students, were recently awarded monetary resources from the Women’s Leadership Institute’s Tomlanovich-Dimond Research Equity Fund to continue their research this summer, led by psychology and human relations major Devian Johnson. 

The team is utilizing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) statements they have written, sent via email to incoming MSU students, to discover whether or not statements of support such as these improve sense of belonging among both women and students of color pursuing STEM majors. When a student is underrepresented in their major pool, this can often lead to feelings of disadvantage and a lack of inclusiveness among their peers, which can discourage them from continuing on the STEM track, one which is already suffering from diversity gaps.. The researchers are interested in finding out if improving social ties and belongingness will help close some of these gaps.

“We want to better understand how we can fill [STEM] gaps, be more inclusive and understand minority perspectives. There are many differences among students, but we should all align by our commonalities,” Johnson explained. 

Chuan added, “College is hard, and when you’re underrepresented, there’s an added layer of, ‘maybe this is so hard for me because everyone else has a leg up in comparison, or more people like them to help each other through.’ We want to better understand these entrenched differences, and what we can do about it.”

With the help of the Tomlanovich-Dimond fund, Johnson will continue to interview students who received the DEI statements and discuss the decision-making processes surrounding their attitudes, social relationships and academic decisions.

“It’s been a fascinating way to understand a student’s education life cycle,” Johnson said. “If we can understand how decisions are influenced during that life cycle, than we can better understand how disparities come into place for students going into STEM careers at the collegiate level.”

There is a major issue of representation in STEM occupations, Chaun notes, and society loses out on a large potential pool of talent if women and minority groups are discouraged from pursuing difficult majors such as pre-medicine and mathematics. The hope of the researchers is that, by identifying social disparities and ways they can be eliminated, students will feel welcomed by faculty and peers in their majors and encouraged to continue on into the STEM field. With STEM occupations tending to pay more than non-STEM occupations, this may also serve to help close the gender pay gap. 

“It’s statistically shown that if you have more diverse groups of people working together, it can produce amazing results,” Johnson explained. “If I see Black people out being politicians, advocates for community, breaking barriers, then you have the vision and the opportunity to see that you can do it, too.”

The project was first conceived by Chuan and student Andrew Johnson; Chuan was interested in examining decision-making from the perspective of gender, while Johnson wanted to examine racial disparities. Johnson’s ultimate goal is to apply the team’s findings to make recommendations for future educational policies. They applied for and received funding from the WLI, which will help to amplify their research and disseminate their findings to a wider audience.

“Being able to talk about these persistent gaps in choices people make by gender and other relevant characteristics is extremely key,” Chuan said. “The ultimate goal of this project is rectifying this and building community and social channels for these individuals, and this is a big step towards that direction.”

Read more about the WLI and the Tomlanovich-Dimond fund here.