To Grab and to Hold: Cultivating Communal Goals to Overcome Cultural and Structural Barriers in First-Generation College Students’ Science Interest

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Abstract

Homogeneity within science limits creativity and discovery, and can feed into a perpetuating cycle of underrepresentation. From enhancing social justice to alleviating health and economic disadvantages, broadening participation in science is imperative. We focus here on first-generation students (FGS) and identify factors which grab and hold science interest among this underrepresented group. Might the culture and norms within science unintentionally limit FGS’ participation? We argue that 2 distinct aspects of communal goals contribute to FGS’ underrepresentation at different stages of the STEM pipeline: cultural perceptions of science as uncommunal (little emphasis on prosocial behavior and collaboration) and the uncommunal structure of STEM graduate education and training. Across 2 studies we investigated factors that catch (Study 1) and hold (Study 2) FGS’ science interest. In Study 1, we find only when FGS believe that working in science will allow them to fulfill prosocial communal purpose goals are they more intrinsically interested in science. Yet, later in the pipeline science education devalues prosocial communal goals creating a structural mobility barrier among FGS. Study 2 found that FGS generally want to stay close to home instead of relocating to pursue a graduate education. For FGS (vs. continuing-generation students), higher prosocial communal goal orientation significantly predicted lower residential mobility. We discuss implications for interventions to counteract the uncommunal science education and training culture to help improve access to FGS and other similarly situated underrepresented populations.

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