Racial Equity in the STEM Math Pathway: Designing for Disproportionate Benefit

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Helen Burn, Ph.D.
Mathematics Faculty, Director of Curriculum Research Group
Highline College
Headshot of Susan Singer
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Susan Singer, Ph.D.
Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost
Rollins College

Caption: Chemistry students at Highline College. (Image credit: Highline College)

Despite the importance of a solid foundation in mathematics for students pursuing STEM degrees, the STEM math pathway continues to serve as a primary barrier to students pursuing STEM degrees, a barrier felt more strongly by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) students (Herrara & Hurtado, 2014; Palmer & Wood, 2013).1,2 BIPOC students continue to be underrepresented in STEM, with African American students currently earning only 8.7% of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering (National Science Board, 2022).3 This blog post focuses on designing for racial equity in the STEM math pathway in two-year colleges, institutions that overwhelmingly serve as the primary pathway into postsecondary education for historically underserved students. Designing for racial equity stands in contrast to colorblind approaches aimed to “lift all ships” while doing little to advance racial equity. Colorblind approaches ignore that mathematics is a racialized space and can reinforce dominant norms and traditions in STEM that led to BIPOC underrepresentation in the first place (Battey & Leyva, 2016; Davis & Martin, 2008).4,5 For example, mathematics programs may focus on outcomes assessment without disaggregating by race/ethnicity, or they may offer robust tutoring program without training their tutors in cultural responsiveness.

Transitioning Learners to Calculus in Community Colleges (TLC3)

Identifying practices with disproportionate benefit to BIPOC students in the STEM math pathway was the goal of Transitioning Learners to Calculus in Community Colleges (TLC3, NSF IUSE 1625918, 1625387, 1625946,1625891). Our interdisciplinary research team drew from multiple sources including research on men of color in community colleges (Wood, Harris III, &  White, 2015)6 and the National Study of Calculus (Bressoud, Mesa, & Rasmussen, 2015).7 We also conducted our own national survey of mathematics chairs in two-year colleges and case studies of four minority-serving institutions, resulting in a set of equity practices and an Institutional Self-Assessment Tool that colleges can use to identify and remove barriers for BIPOC students in the STEM math pathway. We organized the practices around five domains: 1) institutional responsibility, 2) mathematics placement, 3) STEM mathematics courses, 4) instruction, and 5) out-of-class support. The practices were developed for two-year colleges but may generalize as the STEM math pathway can manifest similarly across institutional types.

Institutional Responsibility Domain

The unique campus environment in which a mathematics program is located influences student outcomes. Harris and Wood’s (2016) Socio-Ecological Outcomes (SEO) model16 underscores the institution’s responsibility to foster a culture conducive to learning and success for men of color in community colleges. Practices identified within this domain derive from our case study colleges and include providing permanent base funding to bolster and support the success of BIPOC students in STEM and access to high-quality, ongoing professional learning for mathematics faculty (full- and part-time) focused on inclusive teaching strategies, implicit bias, and racial microaggressions. Also, because race tends to be correlated with socio-economic status, the colleges we studied had targeted efforts to provide accessible and efficacious resources for students facing food, health, and housing insecurities.

Mathematics Placement Domain

Accurate initial mathematics placement was identified as one of the top three priorities in the STEM math pathway by 59% of mathematics chairs in our national survey (Burn, Mesa, Wood, & Zamani-Gallaher, 2018).8 Historically, BIPOC students disproportionately place into developmental mathematics which costs additional time and money (Chu et al., 2022, Melguizo et al., 2016)9,10 and can signal to students that they don’t belong and thus trigger imposter syndrome (Cox, 2009).11 The practices in the mathematics placement domain aim to ensure highest possible placement and to build trust among BIPOC students that they are fairly placed into their initial math course. The minority-serving colleges we visited gave students advising about mathematics placement, provided options for placement in addition to a standardized placement test, and offered or required test preparation. In some cases, colleges enacted policies to test out of courses or to allow higher placement by college staff. As one student described:

When I first took the placement test, they put me in a [developmental] class. But when we get to the class it was like okay, we’re going to give you this test to see if you really belong here. When I took the test, I ended up being removed from that class and being placed into college level.

STEM Mathematics Course Domain

The sheer length of the STEM math pathway can discourage STEM-interested students, with disproportionate impact on BIPOC students (Herrara & Hurtado, 2014).1 Thus, the first equity practice in the STEM mathematics course domain is to ensure the number of courses in the pathway is optimized for timely progress. Our case study colleges took steps to accelerate students through developmental mathematics, but there were overall less efforts to accelerate at the precalculus or calculus level. A second equity practice is to have mathematics faculty review data at least annually on student outcomes disaggregated by race/ethnicity within gender. At my college, the mathematics program receives an annual report showing initial placement, retention, and pass-rate data, disaggregated by race/ethnicity. We use the data to establish baseline data and track progress as we make changes. A final practice in this domain is to ensure that mathematics courses transfer and apply towards STEM baccalaureate degrees, a joint responsibility of 2- and 4-year institutions.

Instruction Domain

In the instruction domain, we separated mathematical from relational practices. Mathematical practices can lead to high quality mathematics learning and positive mathematical identity (Hill, Rowan, & Ball, 2005).12 The practices include making student active involvement in problem solving central to instruction, inviting students to discuss and share their thinking with each other, making the relevance of mathematics explicit to students, and keeping the mathematical content and tasks challenging in terms of cognitive demand. We underscore that mathematical relevance when connected explicitly to engaging and valuing a student’s identity is a feature of culturally responsive mathematics teaching that can enhance racialized student learning, engagement, and attainment (Martin, 2009).13 In contrast, relational practices are aimed at building trust and positive faculty-student relationships (Wood et al., 2015)6 and include expressing authentic care and welcomeness to engage, which entails faculty communicating to students that their engagement is not just welcomed but also desired. Other relational practices include validating and addressing student questions in a timely fashion, knowing what students find helpful or hindering in their college and math courses, and employing performance monitoring techniques consistently. Table 1 shows examples of mathematical and relational practices within the classrooms we observed.

Table 1

Mathematical Practices in Action
  • Faculty allotted time for students to work on solving math problems during class, generally in pairs.
  • Faculty asked students to discuss or share their thinking about mathematics with each other.
  • Faculty explained how the mathematics students were learning was important to students’ future careers or coursework.

Relational Practices in Action
  • Openly engaging with students while they work on problems, including “leaning in” when working with students.
  • Validating or publicly praising an approach a student has taken.
  • Making performance expectations clear around showing work and making multiple forms of reminders: verbal, on board, email.

Out-of-Class Student Support

Lastly, an important but often overlooked domain in the STEM math pathway is out-of-class support for students. Precalculus and calculus are difficult courses and students generally need out-of-class support to succeed. In our case study colleges, faculty office hours and campus tutorial centers were the two main ways students sought support. At a minimum, mathematics tutoring and faculty office hours should be available and easily accessible to students. Next, both our research and the National Study of Calculus (Bressoud et al., 2015)7 identified the importance of having dedicated space on campus for students to gather together to work on mathematics. Ideally, the space would enable positive interactions between students, their peers, and their instructors. Such space can be crucial on campuses where tutoring for upper-level STEM math pathway courses is less available (Burn et al., 2015).14 Having said that, cultural norms and gender identity can influence students’ help-seeking behaviors (Wood et al., 2015).6 For example, the model minority stereotype can make Asian American and Pacific Islander students reluctant to seek out-of-class support because doing so violates the insidious stereotype that Asians are academically gifted and do not need assistance (Museus & Kiang, 2009).15 In our case study colleges, faculty actively promoted relevant support services (including office hours, tutoring, and wellness centers) in their syllabi and during instruction, thus normalizing out-of-class support and increasing the likelihood that students use these resources. Finally, students benefit from having their current grade standing available to them throughout the term. This practice builds trust and provides a means for students to assess whether they need additional support.

Celebrating Calculus Allies

TLC3 partnered with AMATYC (American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges) to identify Calculus Allies among AMATYC members. One institution is Wake Technical College, located in Durham, North Carolina. The college serves over 20,000 students across 10 campuses, with over 40 full-time and 24 part-time mathematics faculty. Their student body is diverse and includes 24% African American, 49% European American, and 10% Latinx students. The mathematics program addressed the STEM math course and instruction domains by optimizing their precalculus course through redesign and course coordination. Using a spiral approach guided by a student lab manual they developed, students are exposed first to graphical representations of functions (linear, quadratic, rational, exponential, logarithmic) which serves as foundation as they revisit functions through algebraic representations, advanced analysis of functions, and applications. To ensure effective instruction across 30 sections of precalculus offered at the college, a leadership team coordinates instruction by providing a course syllabus, calendar, and common assessments, all available through a Blackboard shell for easy access and sharing, with outcomes assessment data collected through Google Sheets. The “Wake Tech way” ensures quality across sections while providing instructors with flexibility and professional autonomy. As an added bonus, the lab manual fee is used to fund faculty professional development.

A second institution, Howard Community College, located in Columbia, Maryland, serves over 30,000 students, with 25 full-time and 100 part-time mathematics faculty. The student body includes 31% African American, 34% European American, and 12% Latinx students. The mathematics program at Howard Community College focused on the out-of-class student support and institutional responsibility domains. They developed a Companion Seminars for upper-level STEM math courses, Honors Calculus, a history-of-math honors seminar for precalculus, a STEM learning community, and a STEM scholars program. In the Honors Calculus and Companion Seminars, student engage in writing and refining papers which plants the seeds for undergraduate research and has led to the inclusion of mathematics papers in a research journal on their campus. The STEM learning community serves precalculus-ready students who can enroll for one credit for up to four years. The learning community includes a bonding field trip, interdisciplinary courses with project-based learning, and training in applying and interviewing for internships. The STEM scholars program provides students with scholarships, and students earn a designation at graduation. The STEM learning community and scholars program is highlighted in the college’s strategic plan, and enrollment in these programs reflects the demographics of the student body.


The TLC3 research project offers tools to transform how your college identifies and removes barriers for BIPOC students in the STEM math pathway. Grounded in research that we conducted during the past five years, our Institutional Self-Assessment Tool has been employed in professional development workshops, webinars, and used in collaborations with individual colleges to develop a plan to improve one or more of the domains on their campus. Most significantly, the tool has been used to educate mathematics faculty in two-year colleges about barriers that disproportionately impact BIPOC students in mathematics. However, our implementation work has only just begun. We all need to redouble efforts to advance racial equity in the STEM math pathway on our campuses by intentionally designing for positive benefit. Practices and strategies that ignore BIPOC students uphold dominant norms and traditions and will continue to serve as a barrier to access and progression for BIPOC students pursuing the STEM math pathway.


Support for this work is provided by the National Science Foundation’s Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) program under Awards 1625918, 1625387, 1625946,1625891. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.