Research shows field courses bridge STEM diversity gaps

STEM diversity
Field courses inspire diverse students to excel in college and earn degrees in science. These UC Santa Cruz undergraduates were visiting the NRS’s Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve in Big Sur as part of their field course. Image: courtesy Erika Zavaleta

By Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System

When Roxanne Beltran was admitted to UC Santa Cruz, she was thrilled to finally start her college career, possibly to become a marine biologist. But the introductory biology and physics classes she was required to take almost drove her out of science.

“I was suddenly in 400 person lecture halls, when my entire high school was less than 400 students total. I felt I didn’t belong, or know how to reach out for help,” Beltran says.

What kept Beltran in biology was taking a field course. The chance to stay overnight at field stations, experience natural habitats, and make her own observations about the environment inspired her as no lecture courses had before.

Returning to study STEM diversity

Beltran discussed the importance of field courses to bolster diversity and inclusion in education in a TedxSantaCruz talk held on December 7, 2019.

Eight years later, Beltran is now back at UC Santa Cruz—this time as a professor in ecology and evolutionary biology specializing in the study of marine mammals. And her latest research demonstrates just how powerful field courses can be as a tool for expanding inclusion and improving success in college.

In new research coauthored with colleagues from UC Santa Cruz (three of whom taught her first field course) and the UC Natural Reserve System, Beltran shows that taking a field course dramatically improves academic achievement among undergraduates who are underrepresented minorities, first generation college students, or face financial need. If such undergraduates took a field course, the study finds, they are more likely to graduate and earn degrees in biology than peers who took only lecture courses.

“Our overall goal is to help increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in science. You can do that by helping students feel like they belong and can succeed, and field courses can play a big part in that,” Beltran says.

An engine for achievement

STEM diversity
Field courses like the NRS’s California Ecology and Conservation give students a taste of what it’s like to have a career in science. These CEC students were observing red-winged blackbirds at the NRS’s McLaughlin Natural Reserve. Image: Lobsang Wangdu/NRS

The findings point to field classes as a much-needed means to diversify STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. In the United States, STEM disciplines are less diverse overall than other fields. Ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) lags particularly far behind, with less than half of the racial and ethnic diversity of the biomedical sciences. That has led to fewer people from underrepresented backgrounds entering environmental and ecology fields.

“I hope this research leads to recognition of the value that field experiences can play, not just in preparing all of our students to be great field scientists, but also retaining students,” says Erika Zavaleta, a study coauthor and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz. Beltran conducted the research as a postdoctoral fellow co-advised by Zavaleta and professor Dan Costa.

From anecdotes to hard evidence

STEM diversity
With smaller class sizes, field courses encourage students to get to know classmates and their instructors.These UC Santa Cruz students were learning about maritime chaparral at the NRS’s Fort Ord Natural Reserve near Monterey. Image: courtesy Gage Dayton

The researchers, most of whom are field biologists, had long suspected that field courses narrow gaps in academic achievement.

“You hear anecdotes over and over from students about how field courses have changed their lives. Those are really powerful. But we wanted quantitative data to measure what the impacts of these courses are,” says coauthor Gage Dayton, who teaches multiple field courses at UC Santa Cruz and is director of the campus’s Natural Reserve System.

“Field courses have all of these pieces known to help students succeed, like small class size, frequent instructor contact, and nights away from home, that are potentially powerful ways to help students succeed. I thought they could help engage and retain students for which traditional lecture courses might not be working,” Beltran says.

Disturbing disparities

STEM diversity
Experiences in the field, such as at the high altitude environments of the NRS’s White Mountain Research Center, boost self-confidence and a sense of community belonging. Such feelings help sustain students through the challenges of attaining a degree in science. Image: courtesy Erika Zavaleta

To that end, Beltran and colleagues analyzed the demographics and performance of the more than 28,000 undergraduates admitted to UC Santa Cruz between 2008 and 2014. They combined that information with surveys of 570 undergraduates who took field courses at UC Santa Cruz as well as the NRS’s intensive California Ecology and Conservation field program.

The registration data told a sobering story. When entering college, underrepresented minorities, those first in their families to attend college, and those with financial need were just as likely to be admitted as EEB majors as other students. But those figures diverged after admission. Roughly 15 percent more of such students change their major, and are about 10 percent more likely to leave the university without a degree. Their grade point averages at graduation also tended to be lower than those of their peers. Lastly, these students were also less likely to enroll in field courses.

Field courses retain, inspire, encourage

The act of taking a field course, however, helped retain students who otherwise would have left the major. Students who enrolled in field courses were far more likely to graduate with an EEB degree. Field class enrollment also improved student performance, narrowing the grade point average gap.

Research shows field courses bridge STEM diversity gaps 1
The NRS’s California Ecology and Conservation program brings students to NRS reserves for seven straight weeks. The large block of time CEC students spend in the field correlates with the strong gains they report in field skills confidence. Image: courtesy Krikor Andonian

Equally illuminating were the surveys of students taking one of three field courses or an introductory biology lecture course. Students were asked how confident students felt about skills such as their ability to identify species, design an experiment, deliver an oral presentation, or employ field research methods, both before and after their class.

While lecture course students reported almost no changes in their skills, those who took the field course reported solid gains. The improvements were even greater among under-represented minority students. Though such students had lower confidence in these areas at the start of field courses, they enjoyed greater gains—so much so that all field course participants reported similar levels of mastery by the end.

The intensity of the field experience made a difference as well. Students in the two-unit UC Santa Cruz course, which went into the field on a couple of weekends plus a few afternoon outings, showed appreciable gains. But those taking the NRS’s California Ecology and Conservation (CEC) program, which immerses students at NRS reserves for seven solid weeks, reported the greatest increase in competency ratings.

More field time corresponds to greater gains

STEM diversity
The chance to run their own experiments in nature reminds field course students why they’ve chosen to study science. Here, UC Santa Cruz students discuss data they’ve gathered at the NRS’s Point Reyes Field Station. Image: courtesy Erika Zavaleta

“The survey results really tracked with the amount of time students spent in the field: the more field immersion students experienced, the greater gains they achieved,” says Erin Marnocha, program coordinator for the UC Natural Reserve System who developed the survey questions examined in the study.

“You come to biology with this vision of making discoveries and collecting data and doing science,” Zavaleta says. “It’s part of why field courses work: they are giving students the chance to be scientists, see what that’s like, and gain confidence that you can do those things.”

Bringing field courses to more students

The study’s findings suggest multiple ways to repair the “leaky pipeline” to graduation in EEB and other STEM fields.

One approach would be to make field courses available to students earlier in their academic careers. Many field courses require prerequisites such as introductory biology classes. As a result, most students don’t apply until their final two years of college.

STEM diversity
Providing field courses earlier in a student’s career, and reducing barriers such as course fees, could help retain students in STEM majors. Image: courtesy Gage Dayton

“It’s important to have a class where you don’t have to be an academic superstar, you don’t have to have experience camping—you just have to show up and be curious,” Dayton says.  “If students can have that field experience early on, that gives them motivation to get through those hard classes and persevere,” Dayton says.

Since field classes tend to be small, they let students get comfortable interacting with faculty. Achieving that sense of belonging and community is important for student retention and success in college, says Beltran. “When you’re sitting next to faculty around a campfire sharing s’mores, it’s easy to forget there’s 30 years of experience between you. This shift in view helps students get the help they need and picture themselves in those career paths.”

Removing financial obstacles to field course enrollment could also encourage a broader range of students to sign up. Field courses, especially those headed to international locales, frequently charge equipment, housing, and transportation fees. Reducing those costs, or providing scholarship assistance, could attract more students with financial limitations.

“I hope our findings can help universities better understand the value of field-based learning for their students, and to realize that resources allocated to field courses facilitate life-changing experiences,” Marnocha says.

Applying the lessons

STEM diversity
Deploying field research tools in experiments of their own design builds enthusiasm and self-confidence. These California Ecology and Conservation program students were gathering live rodent traps at the NRS’s McLaughlin Natural Reserve. Image: Lobsang Wangdu/NRS

At UC Santa Cruz, the paper has already led to discussions about making field courses more accessible. Holding more courses, providing them to newer students, and possibly requiring field courses for EEB majors are all on the table.

“Anyone who’s taught or taken a field course knows as soon as students go outside and get their hands dirty, their eyes light up. It’s a fundamentally different experience than sitting in a classroom,” Beltran says.

Support for the field courses was provided by the Helen and Will Webster Foundation, Dean’s Fund for Diversity in the Sciences established by Julie Packard, and the University of California. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute and National Science Foundation helped fund the research.

Related link

Field courses boost STEM diversity, study reveals, UC Santa Cruz

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