STEM-ming the tide
VSU researchers aim to grow STEM students, graduates
Mariah Simmons arrived at Virginia State University in 2016 with a dream of becoming the first computer scientist in her family.
The week before school started, she enrolled in an on-campus mentorship program called Project Knowledge, which provided her a road map for navigating college.
Simmons, now 23, heard stories from students who had been down the path she was about to embark on and received tips on how to succeed in a particularly challenging degree program. Until she graduated, she was mentored by a graduate psychology student, who taught her various life skills, including time management, study skills and mental health management.
She learned psychological tricks to help keep a positive mindset and coping skills for dealing with stress and setbacks.
The knowledge she acquired and the support network she developed changed her life. She credits Project Knowledge with helping her earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science within four years. She graduated in 2020 and landed a job as an associate information security analyst with Richmond-based Fortune 500 utility Dominion Energy Inc.
The mentoring program was based on research led by Cheryl Talley, a VSU psychology and neuroscience professor dedicated to studying methods of keeping students on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) career paths.
Soon after Talley arrived at the Ettrick land-grant university 12 years ago, she noticed her students struggled to complete science courses and she wanted to do something about it. “When I came to Virginia State, I was just so struck by how science averse my students were,” she says.
She knew they were capable of succeeding in math and science classes, but her students didn’t believe that, so she embarked on a journey to find out what precisely was preventing them from earning STEM degrees.
That nagging question has defined Talley’s research and has led to VSU receiving multiple grants to study the topic so the school can find out how to retain those students and help them ultimately go on to high-paying careers.
In November 2021, VSU and two other historically Black colleges and universities [HBCUs] — Georgia’s Morehouse and Spelman colleges — received a joint $9 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study methods for increasing student retention and graduation rates for STEM degree tracks. The researchers will collect data on HBCU students over the next five years to discover what academic interventions work and why.
Competition and demand
The research comes at a pivotal moment in history for HBCUs, which are competing for students and seeking to funnel their best and brightest to companies aiming to diversify the workforce.
Talley will lead the research as director for the analytic hub of the HBCU STEM Undergraduate Success Research Center, which was created to help the universities collaborate on the research. The goal is to develop methods to encourage more Black students to pursue STEM education at historically Black colleges and universities across the country.
Donald Palm, VSU’s provost and vice president for academic and student affairs, hopes the research will provide a playbook for HBCUs to implement programming and instruction techniques that will improve student success rates in STEM studies. Coming from a STEM background himself, Palm is proud VSU is leveraging evidence-based research to lead students to successful STEM career paths.
“HBCUs have a very critical role with having an impact on the diversity in STEM careers as well as in STEM degrees,” Palm says.
About a quarter of Black students with STEM degrees graduate from an HBCU, according to the United Negro College Fund Inc. While that’s significant, there are not enough Black students graduating from STEM programs, especially from HBCUs, to meet industry demand.
Fewer than half of Black high school graduates enroll in college courses, and 13% obtained a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field during the 2017-18 academic year, according to the most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Over the past decade, VSU has mostly lost students, according to data provided by the State Council of Higher Education. In fall 2012, VSU enrolled 6,208 students. During fall 2021, the school had 4,300 students, a 280-student increase from 2020.
Such fluctuations are not necessarily reflective of whether students are enrolling in or staying in college, however, says Tod Massa, director of policy analytics for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Black students are being recruited by other HBCUs as well as by predominantly white universities.
“There are a lot of institutions across the country that are trying to do two things — diversify the student body and survive,” Massa says. “There’s a lot of competition for talented Black students, and that puts pressure on HBCUs.”
Most of VSU’s students are first-generation college students and grow up in low-income households, according to the university, so financial struggles continue to burden them while attending college. About 70% of VSU students receive Pell Grants.
It makes sense that first-generation Black students are concerned about rising tuition costs and taking on debt. To help these students, Massa says, schools need to provide financial aid and wraparound services that prevent students from worrying about money and accessing food and technology.
For the fall 2021 semester, the state started a pilot program called the Virginia College Affordability Network, which offers full semester-at-a-time scholarships to Pell Grant recipients who live within 25 miles of VSU’s Petersburg campus. So far, about 300 VSU students have received the scholarship during the 2021-22 academic year and have an average GPA of 3.1, says Ri’Shawn Bassette, a spokesperson for the university.
Additionally, Talley says, many VSU students come from high schools that didn’t offer course material required for entering STEM programs. A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that 57% of Black students did not have access to courses necessary for college preparation.
“Living in the United States, we have a disparate educational system,” Talley says. “So, depending on your ZIP code, you will get a different educational experience.”
VSU wants to offer a bridge to these types of students, Palm says, so the College of Engineering and Technology is in the process of creating a pre-college summer program to help high school graduates catch up on courses needed to succeed before the semester begins.
“We are putting things in place in order to address their underpreparedness, and we want to really build them up in order to get them to the finish line,” Palm says.
The school has also started a small pilot scholarship program that allows students with a GPA lower than 3.0 to participate in STEM majors.
“If you don’t have a 3.0, it is very difficult to get into a STEM major,” Palm says. “Why can’t somebody who has a 2.5 get into a STEM major if we’re providing the tools for them to be successful?”
The challenges Black students face alone could be enough to stop them from pursuing STEM degrees, Talley says. But through her research, Talley learned a student’s likelihood to continue pursuing a STEM degree has less to do with a student’s ability to complete the coursework and more to do with psychology and their support network.
Talley administered assessment tests to VSU students, asking them questions about self-agency, self-confidence and their academic skill set. The results showed many incoming VSU students are lacking in these three areas, which in turn is preventing many from pursuing STEM education.
The National Science Foundation grant awarded in November 2021 will allow Talley’s team to deploy a similar assessment to students at 25 other HBCUs to determine if these factors are also holding back students from majoring in STEM disciplines at other HBCUs.
“The question will be, is this something that is just true about Virginia State?” Talley says. “Or are other HBCU students majoring in STEM also having self-confidence, self-agency and academic skill set [deficits] being associated with first semester grades?”
Based on the data collected at VSU, Talley’s research team has found that reshaping how students think about themselves can go a long way toward improving student retention.
Victoria Davis, outgoing program manager for Project Knowledge, says VSU’s research has shown students succeed when they are taught to develop self-regulation techniques, so they don’t catastrophize failures.
Talley says 80% of Project Knowledge participants have stuck with STEM courses and, on average, have maintained higher GPAs than students who aren’t in the program. With grant funding, Project Knowledge has expanded into Petersburg High School so VSU can prepare students from marginalized backgrounds before they arrive at college.
“Dr. Talley is a powerhouse, and she is the one who picks up all the kids and nurtures them to be better people,” Simmons says. “Her knowledge that she has given to all of us is actually something that you can get nowhere else. I think she’s the reason that we’re so impactful.”
Simmons, who now protects Dominion’s computers from cyberattacks, returned to VSU this year as an adjunct computer science instructor. She’s the school’s only Black assistant professor of computer science and the only instructor who has gone through VSU’s computer science program and Project Knowledge. She says it means a lot to her to be a role model and show students a Black woman can succeed in a STEM profession.
“The students look at me differently because they see me more as a friend and ally,” Simmons says. “I’ve been an advocate for a lot of students.”
She hasn’t been a professor for very long, but Simmons is already finding ways to leave her mark at VSU. She started a coding club on campus to help students connect and support one another, similar to the way Project Knowledge helped her.
“I’ve been through what the students have gone through,” Simmons says. “I notice a lot of them continue to keep going because they saw that I made it.”
VSU at a glance
A public, historically Black land grant university, Virginia State University was founded on March 6, 1882, when the General Assembly passed a bill to charter the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute.
VSU sits atop a rolling landscape overlooking the Appomattox River with expansive views of Petersburg. VSU’s 231-acre campus has 11 residence halls, 18 academic buildings and a 412-acre agriculture research facility.
African American/Black: 93%
Virginia residents: 72%
272 full-time and 150 part-time faculty
Tuition, fees, housing and financial aid
In-state tuition and fees (undergraduate): $9,154
Out-of-state tuition and fees (undergraduate): $20,909
Room and board: $11,544
Average 2020-21 financial aid awarded to first-time, full-time freshmen: $11,845
*Fall 2020 data