Faculty News

Enhancing Nontraditional Student Experiences in STEM

Michigan Minds Season 3 Episode 47 two students studying with masks

In this episode of Michigan Minds, Varna Kodoth, research assistant at the Center for Education of Women+, discusses how she is working to enhance nontraditional student experiences in STEM programs. 

From November 2019 to February 2020, Kodoth conducted eight focus groups—four with undergraduates and four with graduate students—from U-M science and engineering departments. The goal? To identify how U-M faculty and staff can better support, and include, women and marginalized communities in STEM spaces. 

“From this study, we essentially identified barriers to entry in STEM for marginalized identities. We had eight major findings, and I would say four of them overlap between both the undergraduate and graduate student populations,” she says. 

She describes those four overlapping findings: 

  • Representation in STEM majors is poor, so marginalized students often do not feel that they’re well supported to achieve academic success.
  • Discussions related to social identities are currently not integrated into STEM courses, majors, or programs.
  • There is a gap between nontraditional students and U-M support services where increased accessibility could be helpful.
  • Staff and faculty play a strong role in influencing culture and promoting the importance of DEI.

After the focus groups, Kodoth analyzed the findings and authored a report to be disseminated to U-M department heads, faculty, and staff in STEM disciplines. 

“What’s really important about this report is that it identifies very easy-to-implement recommendations for U-M staff and faculty to take immediate action steps to better support and include underrepresented identities in STEM,” Kodoth says.

She also explains how the work she has been doing with CEW+ demonstrates a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

“The reality is that the underrepresentation of women and marginalized communities in STEM is not often assessed at the undergraduate and graduate levels of academic institutions,” she says. “This, to me, felt like a call to action, that in order to amplify the voice of nontraditional students, we need to commit to collecting and reporting the lived experiences of nontraditional students in STEM spaces.”