SAN MARCOS — Two professors at California State University at San Marcos (CSUSM) were recently awarded a grant for a three-year research project called Families for STEM Success, which will aim to educate families of Latinx science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students while simultaneously helping students balance the two stereotypically incompatible identities.
CSUSM mathematics professor Dr. Kamel Haddad and psychology professor Dr. Anna Woodcock received the $830,000 grant from the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences after applying for it back in 2019.
With the money from the grant, Haddad and Woodcock, in collaboration with the Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE), will create a series of workshops for the families of incoming Latinx STEM majors in order to teach them about their child’s major, get them to be more involved in it and hopefully lead them to be fully supportive of it.
Woodcock said that it all started with the two professors having two separate, but parallel ideas.
“Dr. Haddad had already been working on this idea of including families into the academic process in order to help support their kids in STEM,” Woodcock said. “On the other hand, I’d been doing research looking at identity balance and helping people with stereotypically incompatible identities try to make them compatible.”
Woodcock added that by identity balance, they mean the balance between the student’s STEM identity and their ethnic identity.
“Sometimes what happens is that a Hispanic student, for example, who has a strong STEM identity… they implicitly might not identify ethnic with STEM,” Haddad said. “What they end up doing to succeed and achieve balance is they end up reducing or decreasing their ethnic identity so they can be in a balanced state.”
Haddad said that this is one of the issues this project will attempt to address.
“This is not what we want. We want to show that it is possible, that there isn’t one cookie-cutter picture of what a scientist looks like. One can be of any ethnicity of any gender and still succeed and one shouldn’t have to compromise their identity to be able to succeed in STEM,” Haddad said.
However, identity balance is only half of the equation. Woodcock explained that for most Latinx students, or non-white students in general unless there’s already a scientist in the family, families typically have a hard time understanding what their child is doing at school.
It becomes difficult for parents to understand why their child is on campus if they’re not in class or why they’re always in a lab or what exactly is consuming all of their child’s time.
Both professors noted that there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence, like students who say they couldn’t come to class or finish a project because they had to help with the family business that day, or they have to take care of their grandparent, or they have to take care of their siblings, etc.
“We found that at CSUSM, a lot of our Latinx students, and a lot of our students in general, are commuter students so they actually still live and work in the community,” Woodcock said. “So students have these tensions at home because they have all of these family obligations and a family that’s trying to be supportive, but they might not fully understand how to.”
She added that it’s also difficult when the scientists they see at school or in the media or out in the word are typically white.
“There’s also this conflict among students who are underrepresented in their field. They feel conflict at home and also at their universities, so this isn’t entirely a parent problem, but we want the families to be the solution,” Woodcock said.
Haddad and Woodcock’s research will offer four free workshops, each about three hours long, to families of incoming Latinx students that have chosen a major in the sciences.
The workshops, which will be virtual and in Spanish, will teach parents about what their child goes through in their chosen major, how much higher salaries are, how they can progress in their career once they graduate, what resources and support systems are available to their child at school, etc.
Families will also hear from alumni of CSUSM’s STEM programs, those who went on to graduate school, as well as those who found successful jobs and careers in the local community.
“We really stress the fact that role models do exist and we connect the students with faculty that have done well and that are Spanish speaking because if you don’t really see yourself succeeding, then it’s harder for you to succeed,” Haddad said.
He added that the first set of workshops will begin sometime in February of 2021. They are hoping that they will have between 50 to 80 families that will want to be a part of the experience.
“Workshops will be with parents during the child’s freshman year,” Woodcock said. “We will also follow the students for two years to see how they progress in terms of academic achievements… and also to measure their identities and their identity balance so that we can measure that across time to see what kind of impact the program had.”
Woodcock noted that they will have two control groups: the first is the families who are interested but don’t end up participating, and the second is families who don’t reply or show any interest at all. The project will also follow these students for two years to see if there’s a difference in their academic progress.
The project will also be looking back in time at the cohorts of Latinx STEM students from 2017 to 2019 to evaluate their academic performance.
“This is also a scientific enterprise… this line of research about balance identity theory is really in its infancy,” Woodcock said. “If this works the way that we believe it will, it can be scaled up to other universities with high Latinx populations and also universities of high populations of other minorities if they’re still living at home.”