Research News

UW researchers: Persistence makes the difference in minority participation in science

August 15, 2016

Several researchers with ties to UW-Madison’s School of Education have co-authored a new report that takes a closer look at the problem of persistence -– and why programs that are designed to guide promising students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups into science careers often miss the mark.

The report is titled, “New Measures Assessing Predictors of Academic Persistence for Historically Underrepresented Racial/Ethnic Undergraduates in Science,” and it appears in the journal CBE-Life Sciences Education.

The lead author of the new paper is Angela Byars-Winston of UW-Madison’s Department of Medicine and the Center for Women’s Health Research. Co-authors include: Jenna Rogers of the Center for Women’s Health Research; Janet Branchaw, an assistant professor with the School of Education’s Department of Kinesiology and the director of the Wisconsin Institute for Science Education and Community Engagement; Christine Pribbenow, a senior scientist with the School’s Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER); Ryan Hanke, a graduate student with the School's No. 1-ranked Department of Educational Psychology; and Christine Pfund, a researcher with WCER.

According to a news release promoting the report, the “problem of persistence has long troubled undergraduate programs hoping to guide promising students from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups into science careers, but a new study by science education researchers at the University of Wisconsin says that the problem appears to be translating students' initial interest into confidence that they can proceed in science. About half of all students from historically underrepresented minority (URM) backgrounds say they want to pursue science when they start out as undergraduates, but only about 17 percent of those students currently go on to earn bachelor's degrees in science.”

The researchers, the news release continues, “report new data measuring URM undergraduates' beliefs about variables related to persistence. Confidence in one's ability to perform a task, referred to as self-efficacy beliefs, is a well-established variable that is highly correlated to persistence in science and engineering, the authors wrote. The Wisconsin researchers analyzed responses from a national sample of over 600 students involved in undergraduate research probing their research self-efficacy, such as the opportunity to conduct independent research, prepare a research poster or presentation, or be mentored to pursue research as well as the sources of this research self-efficacy. They also asked URM students about their expectations for a career in science. For example, did they believe they would find the work satisfying, earn respect from others, or earn an attractive salary? This new work presents several validated measures, including the first validated scales for assessing the sources of research-related self-efficacy, say the researchers.”

"Funding agencies are asking for quantifiable data on the return on their investment in programmatic interventions (for URM students” Byars-Winston explains in the news release. “They want evidence that the programs they are funding are achieving increased participation and broader participation and higher persistence of people in those programs. The questions they want to ask have to be statistically tested and modeled.”

The scales reported in this paper, the news release explains, “could provide guidance and metrics both for creating and evaluating research programs for historically underrepresented students.”