“Why is science so hard for students?” This question has intrigued Destiny Williams-Dobosz, a Ph.D. student in Educational Psychology, since she served as an undergraduate tutor for students in introductory chemistry.
The class was known as a “weed-out course” for students pursuing pre-med and natural science majors. But the prevailing wisdom that “chemistry is a hard subject and either you’re good at it or you’re bad at it” didn’t account for what Destiny was observing as a tutor and experiencing herself as a chemistry major. “A lot of students that had potential and came in with these deep interests and values—they were leaving STEM,” she explains. As this was at Mount Holyoke, a women’s college, gendered classroom dynamics were not part of the equation. Destiny persisted, earning a bachelor’s in chemistry, but saw many of her peers of color switch majors.
The vexed questions around the retention of underrepresented students in STEM followed Destiny to graduate school. As she begins her third year at Illinois, she will be a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, one of only 12 students nationwide to win the award this year in the subfield of STEM Education and Learning Research—Science Education. The three-year NSF-GRF is one of the nation’s premier fellowships for graduate students not only in the physical sciences and engineering but also in the social sciences and STEM education.
As the first in her family to pursue a college degree, Destiny chose Mount Holyoke for its proximity to her adopted hometown of Springfield, MA, and because she was looking for a small-campus experience. She majored in chemistry and minored in education with the intent of becoming a high school science teacher. But her experiences as a tutor, the courses she took in psychology, and the conversations she had with professors would set her on the path to pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois.
Destiny credits her undergraduate advisor, Dr. Jonathan Ashby, with providing the strong mentorship she needed. She explains, “a lot of us first-generation college students, we didn’t know, like, ‘why do I need to be doing research?’ We think we’re just going to get good grades…I didn’t know I needed to be doing these other things on the side.” Dr. Ashby introduced Destiny to his chemistry colleagues of color, urged her to pursue research opportunities, and gave her the chance to present at conferences.
It wasn’t that science came naturally to her—she laughingly admits that she only passed organic chemistry on the second try. But, Destiny says, “even though I was going through my own stuff, because I had a support system, I feel like that’s something that differentiated me from other students.” This realization led her to found STEMPOC, Mount Holyoke’s Organization for Students of Color in STEM. The aim of STEMPOC goes beyond community building to connect students of color with the resources they need to successfully navigate academia and persist in STEM. Resources like information about research opportunities, which Destiny discovered, were valuable professional development that could also supply “another type of confidence” in one’s abilities. At the end of her junior year, she participated in an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at the University of Georgia in biology education. This experience at Georgia, she says, “solidified for me that I wanted to do this research”—research not in chemistry but STEM education.
According to Destiny, winning the GRF will give her the time and flexibility to extend the work she has been engaged in with her advisors Dr. Michelle Perry and Dr. Nigel Bosch, and as part of the iLearn research group. Her research focuses on the help-seeking experiences and senses of belonging of students traditionally underrepresented in STEM. To get at these complex concepts, Destiny delves into the messy medium of student-guided discussion forums in online classes to scrutinize how patterns of behavior map identities. “If I’m a first-generation Black student and I ask for help in the discussion forum, and no one replies, how am I going to feel? Am I going to feel like I belong in this course? What are the implications of that?... Because after a while, if you keep asking for help and no one responds to you, or maybe they respond and they give you an answer that isn’t helpful, or maybe it’s just flat-out wrong, or discouraging, what does that mean for your persistence? For how you feel in the classroom? Are you likely to participate in the future? Those are the questions I’m working through now,” says Destiny.
Online education provides both opportunities and challenges not only for instructors and students but also for educational researchers. In the next phase of her research, Destiny hopes that incorporating interviews alongside quantitative analysis will help her better understand the sense of belonging students have coming into a course and their previous experiences with seeking help.
“Just because you tell a student to ask for help doesn’t mean they will. There’s so much behind why a student doesn’t ask for help,” she notes. She hopes her findings will inform instructional design and institutional efforts to increase the retention of underrepresented students in STEM, ultimately contributing to the National Science Foundation’s goal of developing a strong and diverse scientific workforce. And to prospective GRF applicants, especially those in the social sciences, Destiny offers this advice: “think critically about your experiences and how they connect to your research…remember the value behind why you are doing your research.”
The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship is one of the premier fellowships available to graduate students nationwide. The fellowship provides three years of support and is open to U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and nationals pursuing master’s degrees and PhDs in the sciences, social sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, as well as STEM education. See the listing in Fellowship Finder for more information.
Dana N. Johnson is Assistant Director of External Fellowships in the Graduate College, where she enjoys supporting Illinois graduate students as they compete for national and international fellowships and grants. Dana earned a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and continues to follow her research interests in Serbia, migration, and the socioeconomic aspirations of youth. You may see her around town at a lecture on one of these topics, picking through an antique mall or watching her dog chase squirrels.