$200,000 NSF Grant Supports Students STEM Identity through Learning Assistant Program

Azusa Pacific University is dedicated to cultivating student success in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs. The university recently received a $199,996 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study the effectiveness of learning assistants in the classroom and the experiences of historically underrepresented students in STEM, while providing funding for an additional 10 learning assistants per semester over the next two years. The grant was secured by a team of APU faculty including Bradley “Peanut” McCoy, PhD, Elijah Roth, PhD, Kaitlyn Fitzgerald, PhD, Marian Saleh, MA, MS, and Sharon McCathern, PhD.

The main objective of the NSF grant is to measure the effectiveness of learning assistants on the STEM identity of students. “STEM identity is a sense of belonging in a STEM field, not just being a student in a chemistry or biology class, but feeling like you are a chemist or a biologist,” Roth said. “Our learning assistants help foster a welcoming environment where we’re all scientists in the classroom.”

Research points to three ways that students develop STEM identity: recognition, interest, and performance. “Many talented students will begin in a STEM field, but if they don’t get recognition and develop a STEM identity, they are disproportionately pushed out of the field,” McCoy said. “Recognition can come from teachers, peers, family, friends, and of course learning assistants telling students they are STEM people which can lead to higher performance in the classroom.” Although the learning assistant program is only two years old, preliminary data suggests that it’s leading to decreasing rates of D’s, F’s, and withdrawals (students who don’t pass the course), and is increasing performance across the board so more students are earning A or B grades.

The grant also focuses on how STEM identity is strengthened in the learning assistants themselves. Although they are distinctly different from teaching assistants, learning assistants assist faculty in many ways, allowing for more innovative instruction. “I’ve asked my assistants how they would go about teaching certain topics, how they suggest engaging students, and how I can make the material more accessible,” Roth said. “I’m inviting them in as a co-laborer for helping the students learn, someone who has input, ownership, and responsibility of the course, so that they feel the students’ successes are also their successes.” This helps to cement the assistant’s identity as a STEM person and a leader.

Experience of Historically Underrepresented Students in STEM

A major component to the NSF grant is evaluating the experience of historically underrepresented students in STEM fields. “APU is fortunate to have an incredibly diverse student body, which adds to the richness of our campus and our classrooms. Yet we recognize that diversity does not always equal equity or belonging,” Fitzgerald said. “Insight gleaned from this research as well as the faculty and LA professional development on culturally responsive STEM pedagogy are important steps in our ongoing efforts to ensure APU is an environment where all students can thrive.”

Many of the learning assistants come from historically underrepresented backgrounds, which has a major impact on the success of students in their classes. “It’s critical that students see themselves as leaders in the discipline,” Roth said. “Providing these opportunities for underrepresented students to see learning assistants succeeding in their field encourages them to persist and persevere in the course and beyond.”