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Equity in STEM program helps historically underrepresented students succeed

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Alyssa Hurst

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ESTEM scholars

Elizabeth Gutierrez-Gutierrez wasn’t expecting much more than a degree from her University of Denver experience.

As a mother, a first-generation college student and the daughter of immigrant parents, “my first thought coming into DU was I am going here solely for the purpose of graduation and am not planning on having fun. That’s it,” she says.

“I never thought I would make friends like I did in E-STEM. I really found people who I genuinely connect with, and those people are in my calculus class.”

Gutierrez-Gutierrez is speaking about DU’s Equity in STEM program, a partnership between the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, the Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science and Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence. The four-year program brings together 25 to 30 students each year from historically underrepresented backgrounds for academic and community support.

Gutierrez-Gutierrez, who just finished her first year as a computer science student at DU, is part of the program’s second cohort, and will be serving as an E-STEM peer leader for the next academic year.

Constructed under the guidance of Anthea Johnson Rooen, DU’s E-STEM director, the program was designed to increase retention among historically underrepresented students in the STEM fields. Where scholarships remove financial barriers, E-STEM goes a step further to remove academic and social ones.

So far, E-STEM has retained all but one of its students, and that student left DU to pursue a STEM major not offered on campus.  

“If students don’t find a community they really connect with, it’s huge,” Johnson Rooen says. “A few students have come to me and said if it wasn’t for E-STEM, they would’ve left the University. This group of cares about each other, and they are connected with each other and committed to each other’s success.”

Johnson Rooen attributes the program’s success to a set of best practices informed by research by the National Society for Black Engineers and expert Raymond Landis.

E-STEM starts with a pre-orientation experience that brings the new cohort to campus before the larger group of first-year students arrives. From there, the community momentum keeps rolling through the academic year with weekly success sessions led by Johnson Rooen.

“During the success sessions, I meet with the students for an hour and a half every week, and we focus on topics like time management; we talk about study skills; we talk about writing your resume; we talk about undergraduate research and internship opportunities. We have sessions on diversity, power and privilege in the STEM fields and navigating a predominantly white institution. We do queer ally training,” Johnson Rooen says. “Those sessions are designed to really guide them through their first year at the University of Denver and set the tone for the E-STEM community and its values.”

In addition to weekly sessions during their first year on campus, E-STEM take calculus one, two and three as a cluster. “The students are in the same class together five days a week; they have the same professor; they have the same teaching assistant,” Johnson Rooen explains. “That really builds up self-efficacy, and it reminds the students that they are not alone. These Calculus classes are the most diverse courses on campus, with about 80% of the students comprised of E-STEM scholars.”

The first cohort, for example, completed three quarters of calculus with professor Nic Ormes and also attended academic excellence workshops (AEWs) specifically designed to help E-STEM students clarify calculus concepts.

“Whether you are in biology, chemistry, physics or engineering, you have to take calculus,” Ormes says. “That class can be a roadblock. It’s a class where, unfortunately, if the student doesn’t do well, that is quite often what makes them decide to quit the sciences.”

With that roadblock in mind, Ormes and Johnson Rooen created the workshops, taught by Ormes’ teaching assistant. E-STEM students spend an extra 90 minutes a week in the AEWs, discussing difficult concepts in depth and practicing the work through activities.

“That builds community because in those sessions, scholars are working together,” Johnson Rooen says. “The whole idea around the E-STEM program is building this vibrant, diverse academic community and encouraging students to help each other to be academically successful.”

What’s more, Johnson Rooen’s door is always open to E-STEM students like Gutierrez-Gutierrez when they need additional resources or advice. “My first quarter was rough, and I always went to Anthea,” Gutierrez-Gutierrez says. “I couldn’t tell my parents I was struggling with school because they have worked their whole life, so they think school is a piece of cake. Anthea really gave me the motivation to push through the first quarter.”

Part of fostering that academic success, Johnson Rooen says, is encouraging students to build relationships with professors. During the first year, Johnson Rooen, the E-STEM inclusive excellence graduate fellow, and team of peer mentors from the previous cohort of E-STEM students push this idea.

Ormes certainly has noticed a difference. “I really enjoy getting to know these students,” he says. “They are just the kind of students you want. They ask a lot of questions; they come to office hours; they ask how they can improve. When I think of a model student for me, it’s not a math genius, but a student who tried hard and can overcome.”

Even as the program focuses on personal growth for students, it remains dedicated to changing the face of the STEM professions. “If you look at engineering, the most effective teams are the ones that have women on them and are the most diverse. You have lots of different ideas and thoughts and lived experiences,” Johnson Rooen says. “It’s critical for us to be able to increase the number of historically underrepresented students in STEM and to be represented across the board because of the STEM-related problems we are facing now and in the future.”

That’s why Johnson Rooen constantly searches for new internship, undergraduate research opportunities and resources, taking students for industry visits and bringing in STEM speakers from underrepresented backgrounds. “It’s really about helping them to develop a STEM identity where they see themselves represented,” she says. “Helping them to see themselves as future faculty, scientists, doctors and computer scientists."