Undergraduate Research Experiences: Mentoring, Awareness, and Perceptions — A Case Study at a Hispanic-Serving Institution
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Background Undergraduate research experiences (UREs) have been proposed as means to increase the retention and engagement of minority—and more specifically Hispanic—college students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors. This study explores the impact of student characteristics such as gender, classification, ethnicity, and first-generation status on UREs of STEM students through four specific constructs that current literature deem particularly important: (1) research experiences, (2) mentoring experiences, (3) awareness of research opportunities and activities, and (4) perceptions on research. These constructs are here forth referred to as Experiences, Mentoring, Awareness, and Perceptions. The study was conducted at a Hispanic-serving institution (HSI) in Texas, United States (U.S.), where the overall increase in enrollment has been driven by growth in Hispanic student numbers, reflecting the demographic shift of the state and the nation. Results Participants were recruited to be part of a STEM open house. Thirty-five students participated in the Undergraduate Research Experiences: Mentoring, Awareness, and Perceptions Survey (URE MAPS). This exploratory case study sought to look at student characteristics such as gender, classification, ethnicity, and first-generation status as predictors of UREs. Results show that classification and ethnicity student characteristics are statistically significant predictors of UREs. Although gender and first-generation status regression analysis did not show statistically significant results, crosstabulations looking at correlation among variables yield interesting results. Seven percent of the female respondents responded that they “somewhat agree” with the statement that research is a lonely activity in comparison with 23% of males. The majority (60%) of all respondents who “strongly agreed” with the statement that “research is only for future scientists” were Hispanic, indicating a need to clarify such misconceptions to encourage Hispanic student participation. Most self-identified first-generation participants, of whom 80% were female, reported awareness of faculty research activities, again pointing out gender as an important factor among students’ relationship with their professors. Although less than 23% of students noted current participation in mentorship, most of those did report positive impact of this relationship on their attitude and perspective toward their major. Conclusions Despite the small sample size and inherent bias in the characteristics of the STEM open house participants, regression analysis informed by crosstabs analysis revealed some important findings. The research suggested higher-than-expected awareness of Latinos and first-generation students of institutional research activities; however, this awareness has not translated in engagement in research activities. The data also indicates the critical need for high-impact UREs and mentorship relationships, as well as for efforts to battle student preconceptions of who can benefit from such experiences. Although this case study focused on LatinX students (LatinX is a gender-neutral term for people of Latin American heritage used in the U.S.) in the U.S., retention of historically underrepresented students in STEM disciplines is a concern shared by many countries around the world. The successful recruitment, retention, and eventual success of students in STEM degrees depend greatly on the type of pathways and support that are offered. UREs might be one of those pathways.