Opening the Gate

Gatekeeping STEM courses are difficult. Who is to blame when Native students fail? We asked seven tribal college educators to share their perspectives.

Thomson20192, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Not long ago, Native Americans were actively discouraged from pursuing math and science-related careers. Educators, believing that STEM was just too hard, guided the small number of Indians pursuing a college degree into less taxing disciplines or simply pushed them onto the vocational track.

Overt discouragement of this kind is out of favor. All public universities now say they value diversity and many work conscientiously to recruit and support Native students. Yet, for all this effort, Native Americans are still underrepresented in STEM–and, at some level, perhaps, no one is really surprised. After all, math and the sciences are hard and, let’s face it, the path to many STEM-related professions is long, especially when it begins on a reservation. While the number of Native STEM graduates is on the rise, successful completion of a degree is still viewed as a remarkable, almost singular, achievement.

Even those who succeed talk about the difficulty of the journey. At a recent National Science Foundation-sponsored gathering of tribal college STEM faculty, several Native instructors confided that they initially failed their obligatory introductory chemistry course. Only after repeated effort did they earn their degrees and find their home within academe. There was knowing laughter and nods of understanding from their colleagues as these stories were told.

Is this inevitable? Must the path to STEM be so arduous that only the most determined survive? Must a young college student’s journey to a science degree have all the drama of a Homeric epic? Is there something within the culture of STEM that tolerates or even requires struggle and a high chance of failure?

These questions are not new, but they briefly generated national discussion when students enrolled in an undergraduate organic chemistry course at New York University accused an experienced and respected chemistry instructor of being a bad teacher and grading too harshly. In response to a student petition, the university decided not to renew his contract. The New York Times broke the story, framing the incident as “a case study of the pressures on higher education as it tries to handle its Gen-Z student body.”

However, the story also raises specific questions about the challenge of teaching STEM and, especially, courses like organic chemistry. While these classes are required for entry into a wide range of science majors, they are also among the hardest to pass.  

Is there something within the culture of STEM that tolerates or even requires struggle and a high chance of failure?

This is not a new phenomenon. Gatekeeping STEM courses “have had the highest D-F-W rates on most campuses for several decades at least–in fact, most of them persist back into the ‘30s and ‘40s,” noted Timothy McKay, associate dean for undergraduate education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor’s arts and sciences college, who was quoted in a follow-up story published by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

However, there is mounting pressure to address the particular barriers STEM students face, and it is coming from several different directions. The New York Times focused on the changing expectations of students, quoting educators who say today’s undergraduates put in less effort yet expect high grades—and don’t hesitate to file grievances and sign petitions when they don’t get what they want.

But pressure for change is also coming from educators themselves. As the Chronicle of Higher Education observed, “Undergraduate STEM education is in the midst of a reform movement,” prompted by the growing diversity of students and evidence that “the traditional lecture-and-high-stakes-exam model” is not the only or best way to teach STEM courses. Some faculty within this camp reject the idea of “gatekeeping” courses and the underlying assumption that underprepared students need to be weeded out, rather than encouraged and supported, at the outset of their academic careers.

At the forefront of this effort are faculty within tribal and Native-serving colleges, who have a responsibility to serve those who, historically, were the least likely to succeed in college and among the least likely to choose a STEM major. While the Times story briefly brought the entwined issues of academic rigor and equity to the nation’s attention, tribal colleges have been working for nearly fifty years to develop approaches to instruction that promote academic success while also, at least in some quarters, rethinking the conventional structure of STEM education.

In this context, Native Science Report invited STEM faculty and administrators from a cross section of Native-serving institutions to offer their reactions to the events at NYU and, more broadly, the implications for teaching and learning in their disciplines. The question posed was, “Who is responsible when Native STEM students fail?” Responses, published below, were submitted by faculty, administrators, and a former program officer from the National Science Foundation.

Problems and solutions are framed in different ways, but all of our contributors agree on the centrality of teaching and the capacity of dedicated teachers to promote the success of students. Limitations are acknowledged: Not every student is sufficiently motivated, and faculty cannot control the larger social and educational context of Native communities. But missing from these responses is a complacent blamelessness; even after years of teaching, all are looking for new and better ways to reach more students.

Paul Boyer

• • •

It is no longer acceptable to teach the way we were taught

When I started teaching as an assistant professor in the early 1970s, I was sure that the students were to blame for their failures. I was teaching an introductory organic chemistry class for non-majors in which mainly nursing and allied heath majors were enrolled. I presented the material clearly (I believed), provided office hours, offered extra help classes and special study sessions, and worked problems similar to those I included in exams. How could it be my fault that some students failed my classes, despite all that I had done to assist them?

When I received student evaluations for my first two quarters, however, I was shocked by the low scores! One student wrote in the comment section, “This professor should not be allowed to teach anyone other than chemistry majors—[he’s] one of the worst teachers I’ve had.”

Herein is a systemic problem: At the K-12 level, aspiring teachers are required to carry out supervised practice teaching, and be certified before they enter their own classrooms. There are no such requirements for college professors. Nobody had taught me how to teach!  Struggling, I looked for help. After seeking advice from more senior chemistry colleagues, as well as professors in the College of Education, my evaluations improved and, within a couple of years, I was receiving comments like, “He’s one of the best professors I have had in college.”

At Cal State Los Angles, where I taught, or at tribal colleges, where I consult, we don’t have parents who pay $60,000 to $80,000 a year in tuition, demanding that their sons and daughters receive good grades. Nor do we have students signing petitions that result in our losing our jobs, as was the case at NYU. We do, however, have an obligation to support students so they can meet specific learning outcomes and reach their greatest potential. We also have an obligation to help newly hired tribal college STEM instructors become the best possible teachers.

It is no longer acceptable to teach the way we were taught and to assign grades on a norm-referenced system, where students are evaluated in relationship to one another (e.g., the top 10 percent of students receive an A, the next 30 percent a B, and so on). Enrollment in STEM classes at most tribal colleges is in the single digits and using percentages is certainly problematic. America’s educational system has already failed these tribal college and other underrepresented students from the day they enrolled in kindergarten to the day they enrolled in our classes. Thus, we are teaching the extremely small percentage of educational survivors from those kindergarten classes who had the wherewithal to persist despite the overwhelming challenges they faced. Our challenging goal as teachers should be to stop this cascade of failureand go into each class each semester with the expectation that every student will not only pass but excel.

In retrospect, it seemed that my organic chemistry students learned more when we made learning more enjoyable or when they were somewhat motivated. For several years, at the beginning of the term, I made a promise to my students that I would make and serve ice cream made with liquid nitrogen, but only if the overall class average for the mid-term examination was 62 percent or more.  When this promise was made, the class average was almost always above 62 percent. When the promise of liquid nitrogen ice cream was not made, the mid-term average was almost always below 62 percent. In addition, my student evaluations were much higher when ice cream was made.

I do know there is no cause-and-effect link between the liquid nitrogen ice cream and the improved learning of organic chemistry. But I believe we all win when we find enjoyment in STEM teaching and learning and no longer seek to assign blame. This applies to students at elite institutions like NYU as well as to students at institutions for whom the existing undergraduate educational system was never designed or developed: the indigenous, economically disadvantaged, underrepresented students that we teach.

When my students anxiously asked about their grades, I gave them the same advice that Dr. Inge, my botany teacher at Hampton University, gave his students over 50 years ago: “Seek you first knowledge and the grade shall be added unto you.”  

Costello L. Brown, PhD
Emeritus Professor of Chemistry
California State University Los Angeles

• • •

Native students need skin in the game

In mainstream universities, STEM professors sometimes start the semester with a challenge. “Look to your right and look to your left,” they say. “Those two students will not survive this course.” Mainstream students can be motivated by this speech; they are accustomed to being the chosen ones, the successful ones, the performing ones. To be threatened with failure is motivating. They have something “at risk.” They are expected to do well in all things.

In contrast, it is my experience that tribal colleges students arrive with a deflated view of their own capabilities. In elementary and high school, they were told, “Math (or science) is hard for you.”  Many times, this attitude is also reinforced at home where parents repeat phrases like, “I was never any good at math, either.” By the time these students are in a position to become serious about career goals, they are already in a deficit situation, accustomed to being told they were no good at certain subjects. 

The challenge facing tribal colleges is instilling self-confidence and self-esteem in the STEM classroom.  Unlike the confident and motivated mainstream university students, our students often have nothing “at risk” and therefore are not motivated by fear of failing. Instead we must build confidence by giving them “skin in the game.”

To do this, I use an approach that I call “graduated entry.” By “graduated” I mean that the first weekly quizzes are ridiculously easy and would never be revealed to a mainstream colleague. When students receive their grades, I praise them and inform them that the next one will certainly be tougher. The difference in this scenario is that students are now invested in the STEM course (possibly for the first time) and are motivated to “keep that A going.” Each week the rigor of the assessment tools is increased so that, by the end of the course, it is on a par with any mainstream institution. Thus: a “graduated entry” model, building confidence and pride in accomplishment, followed by increasing rigor with appropriate encouragement is executed. The student now is invested in the course and has something to lose that they may not have ever had before in a STEM course (a good grade).

I could go on indefinitely as to why instructors continue to employ the non-working instructional models they learned as students, but it suffices to say it worked for them because they had skin in the game. They do not currently recognize that we must give our tribal college students that same feeling of being “stakeholders” in their education, which means that too many become passive observers in their educational quest and remain accustomed, even conditioned, for failure. We only perpetuate the conditioning with our limited expectations and our lack of understanding how to motivate the unmotivated.

Jeff Hooker
Chief Information Officer
Chief Dull Knife College
Hardin, Montana

• • •

Erosion and decay of K-12 education is the root of the problem

The issue of whether or not students struggle in STEM courses is more closely linked with how determined and prepared they are to put forth the needed effort to pass the course. Time and time again I have effectively tutored students struggling in various STEM courses, but effort and determination on their part is required. STEM courses are often full of concepts that are completely new to students and not always easy to grasp. Some students choose to work harder to master the information while others will make no attempt at all if the work seems too difficult to them.

The challenge of supporting poorly prepared students is a large one. Students too often enter college courses without understanding that the majority of the work for the course is actually done outside the lecture times and that they will need to do more than simply listen to the lectures to be successful in any course, not just STEM ones. I have made several changes to how I teach STEM courses since beginning my teaching career. The things that helped the most were providing study guides, practice tests, quizzes for each chapter, and a test of each chapter as it is covered.  All of my lectures are recorded and multiple years’ worth of discussions and lectures are available to students to review when it fits their schedule to do so. 

I don’t think there needs to be a fundamental change in higher education. The majority of the problems we are seeing stem from the decay and erosion of the k-12 education system in America. That is the root of the problem. The growing tendency in higher education to treat students as consumers, motivated by enrollment and financial concerns, is effectively turning academics into a for-profit industry and diminishing higher education’s mandate to provide all members of society with a broad knowledge base and the ability to think critically.

Brent Voels, PhD
Science Instructor
Cankdeska Cikana Community College
Fort Totten, North Dakota

• • •

STEM classes are not harder, they are just less familiar

In spring of 2020 when schools across the country moved to emergency remote teaching, I experienced the worst failure in my collegiate teaching career. I had a research methods class that required a proposal based on their research topic of interest. While the students were able to produce papers for their non-STEM classes, they failed to complete the assigned proposal. Trying to understand what went wrong, I reviewed course materials, emails, log-in data, text messages and more. Although that data showed a clear decline in engagement among the students and confirmed my many attempts at assistance and encouragement, I still felt that I had failed.  

With the current conversation about failure rates in STEM courses, I reflect on that extreme circumstance. That research methods class had always been labeled difficult, but it typically served a small group of highly performing students who succeeded because they were confident and had a desire to pursue research. A critical assessment of the 2020 debacle revealed two clear obstacles: time and experience.

Without dedicated, uninterrupted blocks of time, many students struggle in STEM coursework. With family care, community involvement, employment and other obligations, finding time to focus on unfamiliar topics is difficult for many tribal college students. This leads directly to the issue of experience. In day-to-day life, we analyze information, form opinions and communicate our needs and concerns about finances, politics, environment and more. New tasks that we learn regularly have some familiar basis. In contrast, collegiate STEM classes employ skills and concepts that are not part of daily life; students confront algebraic and chemical equations, technical writing, and experimental observation and analysis without a frame of reference. I saw this manifest with my 2020 students. When they were not able to come to campus and were home with their families, these highly intelligent and dedicated students didn’t have the experience to fall back on and didn’t have the time to learn entirely new skills.

In the grand scheme of things, I’m not convinced that STEM classes are inherently harder; they’re just less familiar. 

Melinda Neville
Earth System Science Instructor
Leech Lake Tribal College
Cass Lake, Minnesota

• • •

When students fail, instructors need to change how they teach

I don’t think there is a single, definitive answer to the question, “Who is responsible when students fail in STEM?” Success requires effective instructional methods and effort by the instructor as well as appropriate participation and effort by the course participants. Both parties must contribute to the collective effort for a truly successful outcome where the students think, “Wow, that was a great course” and the instructor thinks, “Wow, that was a great class.” When students fail in STEM courses there is a breakdown in one or more aspects of the collective effort. Either the instructor is not holding up his or her end of the effort in some fashion – e.g., instructional methods are ineffective, minimal subject information is covered, little feedback is provided – or students are not fulfilling their obligations due to competing demands on their time and attention, lack of preparation, dislike of the subject matter or instructor, or any number of other reasons.

When I give an exam or other assignment and the students perform poorly, I usually feel a bit surprised and interpret the poor outcome as important information that lets me know the students were not learning what I thought they were learning and that perhaps I should evaluate my teaching approach and try something different. The blame may not be entirely mine, but as the instructor and facilitator of a course or lab, I bear a significant portion of the responsibility to deliver a successful course in which most students learn the material and pass the course, and I clearly bear the responsibility to put forth my best effort to give course participants reasonable opportunity to successfully learn the included topics and complete the course.

J. Foster Sawyer, Ph.D.
Faculty/Research Scientist
Math and Science Department
Oglala Lakota College
Kyle, South Dakota

• • •

Want to engage students? Let them conduct research

“Who is responsible when students fail in STEM?” My answer is that educators bear some responsibility when they fail to provide opportunities for undergraduate research.

Even though it has been extensively studied for a while now and shown to be beneficial to students’ cognitive, personal and professional development, and even identified as one of the high impact educational practices, research opportunities are still not widely available, especially at tribally controlled colleges and universities.

I’ve not only witnessed the positive effect of undergraduate research as a faculty member, but also experienced it firsthand as an undergraduate. Even when my studies were abstract and inapplicable to real life, my research was instrumental in keeping up my interest and GPA. It also played a role in my decision to continue on to graduate school (simply to be able to do more research). I’ve observed similar effects in my undergraduate research assistants over the years, which makes me think that I wasn’t an exception and that the positive effects of research (as cutting edge and hands on as possible) can be generalized to a wider population of undergrads. 

Oleksandr Makeyev, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, School of STEM
Diné College
Tsaile, Arizona

• • •

Tribal education systems are failing our people and communities

Who is responsible when students fail in STEM? I have been tossing this question around for decades.

Tribal education systems are still failing too many of our people and communities. This is happening even though, within tribal schools and communities, there are more Indian teachers, administrators, school board governors, and 50 years of federal support that has funded the implementation of language and culture in the schools.

For tribal nations specifically, a relevant question is, “What is the expectation of the tribal nation?” If we say we want quality education that assures highly educated tribal members, then we must make sure that quality education and highly educated individuals are the product of the tribal education system, especially the education taking place at our tribal colleges.

Another question is, “What is the expectation of American society?” To answer that we need to know whether Americans believe we are one society, or many unequal societies. If it is the latter, then education will remain a gatekeeper, used by those who are tasked with weeding out those who challenge the status quo.

Indian people, working within their own education systems, must do everything possible to take full advantage of what a quality education can offer students and our societies. Perhaps this will be our answer to the question, “Who is responsible when students fail in STEM?”

Carty Monette, PhD
Senior Associate, Tribal Nations Research Group
Past president, Turtle Mountain Community College
Belcourt, North Dakota

• • •

Story published November 21, 2022

One thought on “Opening the Gate

  1. I am from Sisseton Wahpeton College in Agency Village, SD and would like to start a STEM project this winter. I am looking for good STEM projects with curriculum to work with middle school or high school students. I am hoping someone could share STEM curriculum ideas with me if possible.


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