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Why Students Who Do Research Stick with STEM

For students pursuing two-year college degrees, spending time on research has an impact well beyond the lab.

The finding comes from a study of students who did faculty-mentored research for a year in the CUNY Research Scholars Program. CRSP students were more likely to stick with STEM fields as a major; more likely to transfer to research-intensive four-year colleges, and more likely to feel that they “belonged” in college.

Why did CRSP have such far-reaching effects? Because it helped the students “develop identities as aspiring scholars and scientists,” according to the study published in the journal CBE–Life Sciences Education. The study was conducted by Ron Nerio, Effie MacLachlan, and Avrom Caplan (now at Pace University) from the CUNY Office of Research, and Althea Webber from the CUNY Office of Research Evaluation and Program Support.

The study tracked 500 CRSP students over three years, comparing their paths to a similar cohort of students who did not participate in CRSP. Both groups were pursuing two-year associate’s degrees. Initially, 80 percent in both groups declared an interest in STEM majors. But the CRSP students were “significantly more likely to graduate in a STEM discipline, especially in general science, biology, chemistry, and engineering” compared to the non-CRSP students. (Only computer science drew more non-CRSP students.)

Of those who went on to pursue bachelor’s degrees, CRSP students were more likely to enroll at one of CUNY’s research-intensive colleges. Those transferring outside CUNY were almost twice as likely to pick R1 universities if they’d taken part in CRSP. (R1 connotes high levels of research funding in higher ed.)

Just 27% of the students said they “felt comfortable” or “at home” in college before CRSP, but 64% felt so after CRSP. More than half the CRSP students were black and Latino.

CRSP involves 400 hours of research closely mentored by professors. The yearlong experience also includes science writing and public speaking. Faculty say the yearlong duration allows students to dig into projects, develop skills, and get results. The timeframe also gives professors time to get to know students, which helps with letters of reference, and it gives students plenty of fodder for application essays and resumes.

CRSP students also earn $5,000, which helps alleviate financial pressure, though most students hold jobs outside school anyway. Equally important, the stipend helps them commit to the program and shows that “their research is taken seriously.”