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Minorities studied in STEM programs

Females and minority students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors are the main focus of an anthropology professor’s research, which has brought in millions in research money.

Anthropology professor Kathryn Borman is working on research that might shed light on reasons for successes and failures among students in these fields.

Borman received more than $7.1 million for her work studying curricula and pathways of students in STEM fields. She works with the Alliance for Applied Research in Education and Anthropology (AAREA), a multidisciplinary research team and an affiliate of the USF Department of Anthropology.

The National Science Foundation, the Florida Department of Education and the Spencer Foundation distributed the awards. The programs investigate ways in which education can be improved around the world.

Awards fund several projects, Borman said, and use a mixed methods approach — including interviewing participants and teachers and conducting specialized focus groups.

The team is working on a project that observes the experiences of engineering and chemistry students at USF and other Florida universities, such as FSU and UF.

“We’re particularly focused on the experience that women and minorities have in the departments that they are a part of (engineering and chemistry) and the effects of  departmental culture and climate on them,” Borman said.

The team is in the process of writing up the findings on the engineering majors, for which it has a book contract, she said.

“What we’re seeing is that it’s really important for students who are successful in engineering to have what we’re calling ‘social fit,'” she said. “That is, they are sitting well with their colleagues and faculty members.”

She said students who do not feel they belong — especially women and minority students — are likely to switch out of their program.

Borman said students crave participation in faculty research efforts, and encouragement and openness from faculty to include students in such efforts would promote retention in STEM programs.

A student without that kind of support might otherwise feel disaffected and leave the program, she said.

Bridget Cotner, a research associate who has worked with Borman for the past 10 years, said most of the research team’s sponsors want to increase the number of scientists in the U.S. because there is a need for it, but there is a particular focus on raising the numbers of female and minority students.

Borman’s team also looks at the course work of high school and college students and examines the pathways students take. It also looks at the employment students obtain upon departing high school or college.