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"If you aren’t White, Asian or Indian, you aren’t an engineer”: racial microaggressions in STEM education

Partners' Institution
Kaunas University of Technology
Year of publication
Educational stage
University Level
Journal name
International Journal of STEM Education
Thematic Area
Gender Inequality, Students’ Difficulties
The study is dedicated to the analysis of university campus climate regarding racial microaggressions (RMA). The questions addressed in the research are:
1) Do non-White STEM students face RMAs at the campus, academic, and/or peer levels?
2) How do these experiences vary by race, gender, and class year?
3) What are the specific types of RMAs experienced?
4) How do RMAs contribute to the low numbers of underrepresented minorities in STEM majors?
The study provides qualitative and quantitative analysis to predict the likelihood of occurrence of microaggressions. The analysis showed that race is a more important feature in predicting occurrence of microaggression compared to gender. The students of color often felt excluded from group activities, discouraged, or ignored by the staff members or peers. In conclusion, this research addressed the importance of designing the STEM courses with the emphasis on the need of working in diverse community, analyzing various perspectives in order to create innovative solutions for problems in society.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
The cases of microaggressions lead to students leaving the career, changing disciplines, losing interest in the subject. There is a wide range of behavior patterns which could be determined as microaggression. The examples are negative and insulting comments, harassment, offensive jokes, negative treatment. The majority of the microaggression occur due to students’ race. STEM disciplines are traditionally white male dominated areas. Microaggression towards students of another race or gender are not isolated incidents. Thus, the racial climate in the institution serves as a significant factor in low diversity in STEM majors. The research on institutional climate with consideration of racial microaggressions (RMA) is performed in three levels, that is, campus, academical, and peer. Data was collected in land-grant USA university with white predominant community. The respondents were students of color who have STEM major, such as computer science, animal sciences, agricultural sciences, engineering, mathematics, and other. The majority of the students (45 percent) had major in engineering. The questionnaire consisted of Likert-scale questions, open-ended, place-based, and demographic questions. It was designed to examine RMAs, how the students coped with them, and if students felt marginalized. A series of Poisson regressions were employed to determine the relationships between the likelihood of the regular occurrence of RMA and race. The gender and time were included as features in additional models.
The models showed evidence of racial identity as a factor for RMAs for STEM students in campus level, academic, and peer level. It is noted that black students had increased probability to experience RMAs, especially in the early years of university. Moreover, female students have higher probability to experience RMAs than male students. The qualitative analysis identified cases where students were made fun of, felt isolated, or invalidated. Obviously, RMAs had negative impact on emotions, confidence, and persistence to graduate the major in STEM fields.
The results suggest that RMAs are not isolated incidents, but systematic behavior in the existing campus culture. As the campus culture takes a long time to change, the positive shift towards more diverse community and healthier racial institutional climate should be boosted by examining cultural differences, history perspectives, policies, and structures.
The authors state that diversity of the team is essential in solving tough problems in society, because it gives different points of view and employs different talents.
Point of Strength
The study combines quantitative analysis with qualitative data. Thus, the conclusions about cases of racial microaggression are justified with the related anecdotes. The paper helps to identify the microaggression cases and address them to create a diverse and inclusive STEM community.
Racial microaggressions, Higher education, STEM, Educational setting, Diversity concerns