The social, economic, and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have disproportionately affected underserved populations in the United States, including racially minoritized students, lower-income students, and females. These populations have also been historically underrepresented and underserved in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Without a concerted effort to recruit and support underserved students in STEM amid the crisis, the consequences of COVID-19 threaten to erase progress that has made and to exacerbate long-standing inequities and racial disparities by further stratifying STEM fields, according to two Virginia Tech faculty members.

Tonisha Lane, an assistant professor in the School of Education, and Ian Shoemaker, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics, aim to ameliorate that threat. The pair have recently received a $50,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation to study the development of science identity among underrepresented students who have engaged in undergraduate research remotely during the pandemic.

The Spencer Foundation’s COVID-19 Research Grants support research projects that contribute to understanding the rapid shifts in education related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Only 20 projects were funded out of the 1,369 submissions during this cycle. Lane and Shoemaker’s project was among the 2 percent of submissions selected for funding.

Lane leads the project as the principal investigator responsible overseeing the educational research design, data collection, and data analysis. As co-principal investigator, Shoemaker recruited faculty members to act as research mentors as well as student researchers. He also serves as a subject-matter expert on STEM learning outcomes through various phases of the conceptualization and implementation of the study.

“Paid research positions are a relatively simple and direct way of positively impacting underrepresentation in the sciences,” Shoemaker said. “First of all, many students simply need to work while in school. Secondly, by directly engaging students in the doing of science, they can start to perceive themselves and be seen by others as future scientists. It turns out that belonging and science identity have been shown to play a significant role in the retention and persistence of underrepresented students, and paid research impacts both of these elements.”

Through their project, Lane and Shoemaker seek to reimagine undergraduate research opportunities for underserved students in STEM fields in order to directly address the adverse impacts of COVID-19 and use empirical findings to support continued student success in the post-COVID world. Specifically, their project aims to create and study the impact of remote STEM research opportunities for underrepresented students.

“We expect the study results to help us better understand how students who have been historically disenfranchised in higher education and STEM pivoted during the pandemic in ways that will have a lasting impact on their continued science identity development,” said Lane. “We also aim to learn how these experiences fortified their capacity to be resilient during unpredictable times, a skillset that is critical for scientists and engineers in the workplace.”

“Diversifying STEM fields is a pathway to advancing equity and economic and social justice for underrepresented populations,” said Kristin Gehsmann, director of the Virginia Tech School of Education. “Students’ diverse perspectives and experiences also enrich the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

“This study will help the School of Education and other institutes of higher education build curriculum and experiences that attract and support historically underrepresented and underserved populations in STEM,” Gehsmann added. “Drs. Lane and Shoemaker are helping us reimagine the future of education and STEM fields through this critical research study.”

The Virginia Tech School of Education is a global catalyst for individual and social transformation through education, applied research, and advocacy. With 20 degree and certificate programs, the school offers students a range of pathway to serve the greater good. To learn more, visit the school’s website, or find the school on TwitterFacebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

For more information about research projects in the School of Education, visit the research section of the school’s website.

Written by Sharon Stidham