Looking for the long-term secret to STEM success

January 19, 2021

Researcher Lisa Linnenbrink-Garcia started following a group of college students to learn if they would remain interested in science careers, and what types of experiences shape their attitudes.

That was 10 years ago. Now the Michigan State University professor’s longitudinal study will go even longer—up to 7 years after students’ graduation—thanks to a new, nearly $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Data from the ongoing sample of approximately 4,000 people across two universities is expected to provide key insights on not only what students who started taking science courses end up doing after college, but why.

“We often know whether people are in science, but we don’t really know more about the details of those experiences and what their thoughts and feelings are,” said Linnenbrink-Garcia, professor of educational psychology in the MSU College of Education and a leading expert on motivation.

“People are leaving to go to other fields, perhaps because the STEM fields are not supportive to everyone that’s in them. We want to know what happens outside of the classroom and what we could do at the undergraduate level so we don’t lose so many talented people.”

Linnenbrink-Garcia and her colleagues have used a series of surveys and interviews to collect information from multiple cohorts of students, some starting from the first semester of freshman year through two years after graduation.

Their new five-year grant, from the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) program at NIH, will allow the team to gather follow-up information from existing participants up to seven years out, and add to the study students from another, minority-serving institution.

They are especially focused on how experiences such as internships, mentoring or job shadowing encourage or deter those underrepresented in STEM fields, including women, persons of color and first-generation college students.

“If we can better understand when their undergraduate education experiences are most powerful for shaping persistence, then we can help programs use resources in ways that are going to be the most impactful,” Linnenbrink-Garcia said.

Linnenbrink-Garcia’s collaborators include Rochelle Schwartz-Bloom at Duke University and Tony Perez at Old Dominion University.

Learn more about Linnenbrink-Garcia’s research on achievement motivation by visiting her lab website.