Leveraging Educational Psychology

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Authored By: Dr. Joel B. Goodin

Expertise to Address Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion of Hispanic students in STEM Educational Pursuits

A colleague recently reached out to me asking for any insight I might share with her team of biologists and other hard science experts striving to promote STEM to Hispanic students who are underrepresented in the field. As a PhD Educational Psychologist, of course, I had ideas. Their problem was very likely not a hard science issue that could be solved with beakers and lab coats. Rather, the issue at hand seemed to be one of human behavior and thought – Psychology. The issue was taking place in places of learning – Education. If I couldn’t offer some insights, who could?

Assuming that educational engagement and commitment are goal-striving processes used to obtain career opportunities, I started with goal theory. My research with goals has emphasized goal striving and motivation as key components that I thought could serve the team well to understand the students. Goal Theory (Locke & Latham, 1990) can be used to measure commitment to goals, but I explained that motivation, as described by Deci and Ryan (e.g., 2017), could be a fantastic fit. Their theory is called Self-Determination Theory (SDT) and is extremely popular and widely used in the social sciences.

Built on a Foundation of Psychological Needs

Deci and Ryan’s SDT suggests that motivation is built on a foundation of psychological needs that must be met: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. They also describe a continuum of motivation wherein behavior is motivated by outside forces (grades, pressure, praise, money; i.e., extrinsic motivation) or by internal forces (pleasure, joy, interest, curiosity; i.e., intrinsic motivation). In effect, behavior is motivated by rewards and pressure or by internal drivers like joy and pleasure or curiosity and excitement, OR a mix of both types of motivational factors.

I explained, “Motivation and goal-oriented behavior (i.e., performance) are 2 of my primary specialties as an Educational Psychologist.” I suggested that SDT could be most advantageous because of the psychological concepts. For instance, Autonomy could relate to the perceived options that Hispanic students may (or may not) feel they have in terms of higher education or alternative majors. Competence and relatedness likely work concurrently on the student’s psyche and motivation. A lack of representation in STEM fields and among STEM instructors may make them feel less competent to approach a STEM goal (competence). It could make them feel emotionally detached (relatedness) from STEM goal pursuits.

The hard-science colleagues mentioned that Hispanic students may not feel “comfortable” entering STEM fields. I emphasized to them that being represented even a little should increase their feeling that “I am welcomed here, and I can do this” (both competence and relatedness).

A Cultural Dynamic That Does Not Sufficiently Motivate Students

Ultimately, I explained that there are a multitude of factors that have created a system or cultural dynamic that does not sufficiently motivate students who are Hispanic to engage and commit with and to STEM endeavors. I offered some hope that was based on my understanding of human behavior within learning processes and educational pursuits. I suggested that the team continue to emphasize early experiences with STEM-related concepts and activities. “This promotes autonomy, competence, and relatedness,” I explained. “And it emphasizes intrinsic motivation.”

I suggested that to increase Hispanic engagement in STEM, academics and administrators must work in concert to reduce obstacles (community college credit transfers). In so doing, they’d promote autonomy and competence, emphasizing extrinsic motivation (mitigation of barriers) and facilitating any intrinsic motivation that exists. Working with administrators again, increased representation (even guest lecturers) and other types of signals that students who are Hispanic are welcomed and wanted could be extremely meaningful to students, promoting relatedness and competence. Students would be more likely to build intrinsic motivation, by identifying with the teacher/professional.

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Better Marketing of the Value of STEM

Better marketing of the value of STEM fields should attract Hispanic students and any students not aware of the benefits of STEM careers. They could emphasize the financial benefits, increasing extrinsic motivation that would flourish if students’ psychological needs (autonomy, competence, relatedness) are met. Those seeking to engage Hispanic students in STEM must build connections within Hispanic communities and at home. I contended that community outreach and cultural integration should increase family and community buy-in and support of the student STEM goal pursuit. Going back to SDT, this should strengthen both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. It could also improve relatedness as STEM is seen as aligned with Hispanic identity. It could improve perceived autonomy due to social support from key stakeholders. Finally, it could improve competence by facilitating experiences in the “home/community” environment.

Ultimately, my expertise built upon theory and practice of educational psychology suggested the following: Assuming that Hispanic engagement in STEM-focused endeavors is somewhat socially and psychologically driven, looking to those fields outside STEM to understand these behavioral trends would be advantageous. While the value (e.g., salary potential) of STEM fields could be better communicated and marketed to students who are Hispanic (and should be), if the student does not feel autonomy, competence, and relatedness, they’re unlikely to be motivated to pursue those fields.

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