Angeline Dukes, B.A., Department of Neurobiology & Behavior

While navigating higher education can be challenging for everyone, it is especially daunting for those who do not see themselves represented in the textbooks and classrooms. Underrepresented minorities (URM) make up 33% of the United States population. However, they only obtain 22% of bachelor’s degrees and 9% of doctorates in science and engineering (NCSES 2019). Thus, there is a pressing need to increase the retention of URMs in these fields. Making conscious efforts to cultivate learning environments that showcase these students’ potential is one way to achieve that goal. Even if you are not a member of an underrepresented group, you can still make a positive impact on their experiences and influence the way they see you as a mentor and ally.

Here are three inclusive teaching practices that emphasize the retention and success of URM students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields:

  1. Intentionally use culturally diverse examples

It can be increasingly isolating to exist in spaces where you do not see your identity represented. Incorporating examples of racial minorities, women, impoverished people, immigrants, etc. can improve your students’ self-perception and the way they view their ability to succeed in STEM courses (Erlt et al. 2017).

Ex: When studying the physiology of the heart, mention the work of Marie M. Daly, PhD, the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate in chemistry and whose research on hypertension and artery blockage led to a better understanding of heart attacks.

  1. Advocate for bringing URM speakers to campus and encourage all students to attend

This is even better if these speakers are coming not to just discuss diversity issues; rather, to share their research/professional journey and expertise. This can reinforce to the URM students their capabilities to excel in STEM careers as well as help mitigate implicit biases non-URMs may have about the aptitudes of URMs.

Ex: If teaching an aerospace engineering course, consider inviting Ellen Ochoa, PhD, the first Hispanic woman to go into space and former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, to give a talk. 

  1. Increase awareness of opportunities and assumed information

The majority of URM college students are also first-generation (NASPA 2019), meaning they may be the first ones in their families to go to college or graduate school. This can be an insurmountable hurdle due to the unspoken information embedded in higher education that they may not be privy to (Chatelain 2018). The best way to help combat this is to educate the whole class on these hidden higher education practices (ex: how to properly format emails, how to approach faculty for research experiences, reaching out to potential advisors when applying to graduate school, URM-specific fellowships/programs, etc). Overcoming these hidden obstacles can help ensure their successive growth in these fields.

Ex: Share information about nationally funded programs designed to benefit URM students in STEM such as the National Institutes of Health-funded Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program for students interested in biomedical research, the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), and the National Science Foundation-funded Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP).

Making these directed efforts to better teach and mentor URMs can ultimately improve individual experiences and enhance STEM fields through the innovative perspectives that these students bring. Previous studies have shown that quality mentorship can propagate URMs into STEM careers (Estrada, et al 2018). Thus, incorporating these suggestions into your classes and labs can be the difference that keeps these brilliant students on this path.


Chatelain, M. (2018) We Must Help First-Generation Students Master Academe’s ‘Hidden Curriculum’. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Special Reports.

Ertl, B., LuttenBerger, S., and Paechter, M. (2017) The Impact of Gender Stereotypes on the Self-Concept of Female Students in STEM Subjects with an Under-Representation of Females. Front. Psychol.

Estrada M, Hernandez PR, Schultz PW. (2018) A Longitudinal Study of How Quality Mentorship and Research Experience Integrate Underrepresented Minorities into STEM Careers. CBE Life Sci Educ.

National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2019. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2019. Special Report NSF 19-304. Alexandria, VA.

RTI International (2019). First-generation College Students: Demographic Characteristics and Postsecondary Enrollment. Washington, DC: NASPA.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on March 5th, 2020.