Student engagement and belonging in an introductory chemistry course

The College of Natural Science and Mathematics, NSM, at California State University Sacramento has a low retention rate, high failure rate and a large achievement gap for freshmen students. Freshmen students who are part of the underrepresented minority – Black, Latino/a, American Indian and Pacific Islander students – have even higher failure rates and lower retention rates than the rest of the student population. Of the nine subjects offered by NSM, the courses in the subject of chemistry consistently have the highest failure rates and lowest retention rates. Despite several calls for an increase in science workers, there have been reports of shortages of college graduates with advanced STEM degrees. It is clear that changes need to be made to help boost the retention rate in order to help meet the demand for science workers. This study uses action research to investigate the effect of using humanistic approaches to science, inclusive pedagogy, and affective learning objectives in order keep students engaged and to increase students’ sense of belonging in a science course. Previous studies have shown that student engagement and a sense of belonging are both positively correlated with academic achievement. By developing techniques and interventions to help students stay engaged with course material, this study demonstrates that small interventions can have a positive effect on student perseverance and sense of belonging. For this study, five new interventions were introduced in the introductory chemistry course CHEM 4: Chemical Calculations. The interventions focused on adding human elements and social relevance to science education. As a result of these interventions, CHEM 4 students indicated that they felt a greater sense of belonging at the end of the semester than they did at the beginning of the semester. Based on student responses on surveys, students also appeared to maintain their level of interest and engagement throughout the semester. While this study shows that the interventions had a positive effect on students during the two semesters that interventions were implemented, the failure rates and achievement gaps for CHEM 4 remained high. Since this study attempted to address student attitudes to impact student performance, it will be important to monitor both immediate and long-term outcomes.