NSF funds study of COVID-19 effects on underrepresented STEM students

Sherry Pagoto
Sherry Pagoto

The COVID pandemic has affected college students worldwide, particularly those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. This issue is such a high priority that the National Science Foundation has provided grants for research projects relating to effects of COVID-19 on education, one of which has been awarded to a faculty member in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources.

Concerned that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students might fall through the cracks during this time, Professor Sherry Pagoto and co-PI Assistant Professor Molly Waring, both in the Department of Allied Health Sciences (AHS), have joined Penn State Professor of Mathematics Nate Brown for a collaborative project funded through NSF to investigate the impact of COVID-19 as it relates to at-risk undergraduate STEM students. 

The pandemic could create another leak in the STEM pipeline as it pertains to underrepresented students,” Pagoto explains. “When we talk about the STEM pipeline, we already know that women and minority students are underrepresented in STEM fields. There are leaks in this pipeline from high school to college and beyond. 

When students were abruptly displaced off-campus and went to online learning, we realized that some students may be more impacted in terms of their academic performance, particularly in STEM courses such as math and courses with lab work. What’s irreplaceable about the campus is that it is a learning environment and it’s important for students during their undergraduate years to be in a place where they can focus and immerse themselves.” 

Some students may have had to return to a home where they might not receive the academic support they need or have the technology necessary to complete their work. This is especially true for first-generation students. They may lack a quiet area to study or broadband access, may have to share a computer or have had to enter the workforce upon returning home 

The research team is working to discover additional stresses put on students while living at home. We were interested to find out if traditional gender roles created a situation where female students were responsible for childcare, eldercare or domestic responsibilities, which puts more on their plate,” Pagoto notes. 

In the first phase, they are assembling student focus groups. Brown is a member of the Math Alliance, a group that includes more than 700 faculty mentors and 900 student participants across the nation. “We asked Math Alliance faculty to contact students and had a huge response, from over 1100 students,” says Pagoto. 

The team will first conduct focus groups with eighty students across the country, then use that information to develop a survey to distribute to 1000 more students.    

“We want to make sure we are asking the right questions,” says Pagoto. “We don’t pretend to know all of the things that have gone well or wrong.” 

“We want to find out how the students have dealt with the pandemic, what struggles they faced and what made it difficult with class work,” she explains. “We want to look at this as a multi-level exploration including academics, home environment, community, as well as issues such as food insecurity, depression, stress and anxiety.” 

The team will focus not only on UConn and Penn State, but a cross-section of schools that include those that are historically black and Hispanic serving, as well as private and state schools. Says Pagoto, We want to determine which students are suffering disproportionately in terms of this pandemic. We also know that racial and ethnic minorities have been heavier hit by COVID19, so our students from these backgrounds will more likely have family members impacted, and obviously that will disrupt their education. 

The team expects to have the results by fall semester’s end and will make recommendations to a network of STEM faculty.  

We want to be able to describe the landscape of the problem and find solutions on how we might preserve this cohort of underrepresented students in the STEM pipeline,” Pagoto says. “We don’t want to lose them. We are hearing that some might drop classes, take a gap year or leave school entirely. We want to determine what we need to do to keep these students on track academically. If they fell behind last semester, it may affect their performance next semester. Once a student falls behind it can snowball. We want to head it off at the pass.” 

The study will also help elucidate the challenges involved in online learning. Some students may thrive, but for others it might not be a good fit,” Pagoto says. “It might inform us on who is most and least likely to benefit from distance learning in the future. 

This research is supported by National Science Foundation award #2028344.

By Kim Colavito Markesich