Diversifying STEM: Assistant professor receives NSF grant to study student transfer pathways from community colleges to Ph.D. programs 

With a primary goal to diversify graduate computing programs and the computer science professoriate, newly hired assistant professor of educational leadership Jennifer Blaney was awarded a $688,454 grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate community college student transfer pathways to graduate school programs in computing.

Jennifer Blaney headshot
Assistant professor Jennifer Blaney

Blaney, who joined Northern Arizona University on Aug. 3, is the principal investigator (PI) on the project titled “Community College to PhD: Developing Graduate Aspirations Among Upward Transfer Students in Computing and Technology,” which aims to increase diversity by exploring ways to support and broaden access for students who follow community college transfer pathways. Upward transfer students refer to students who start at a community college and then transfer into a four-year institution.

According to the 2017 Computing Research Association Taulbee Survey, women represent 18 percent of doctoral degrees in computer science, while Black, Latinx and Native students combined represent fewer than 3 percent of computer science doctorates, indicating a severe lack of diversity in the field. Blaney said the future of the field depends on recruiting more individuals to enter graduate school to secure a diverse faculty pipeline representative of the changing composition of undergraduate computing.

“Broadly speaking from prior research, upward transfer students are a diverse and talented group to retain in STEM programs,” Blaney said. “In some of my research specifically on undergraduate computing, I have found that upward transfer computing students are significantly more diverse in terms of socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity and first-generation college status when compared to students who follow more traditional pathways from high school to four-year institutions.”

Though these students have the academic talent, the concern is that transfer students may not have access to information about graduate training opportunities or decisions to pursue higher education are overshadowed by the perceptions of graduate school costs.

Collaborating with Blaney is David Feldon, co-PI and professor of instructional technology and learning sciences at Utah State University. Together, they will examine community college students’ pathways to graduate studies in computer science. The study will investigate the effect of early intervention recruitment efforts on graduate school aspirations among upward transfer students and whether this differs by gender, race and ethnicity, first-generation college status or socioeconomic status. The grant will fund a three-year longitudinal study.

“We will be collecting longitudinal surveys and interview data from students across five campuses in the University of California system, tracking students from the time they arrive at their UC campus by way of community colleges,” Blaney said.

The early intervention will use a two-phased approach capitalizing on existing transfer programs and advising infrastructure. The first phase will be a brief presentation that occurs during transfer orientation with the intent to cultivate interest and increase early knowledge of graduate training opportunities. The second phase will include prolonged modifications to advising practices. In addition to examining the impact of the intervention itself, the research team will collect data on students’ other experiences in and out of college to determine what other factors may shape graduate school aspirations, enrollment and other outcomes. The research team will then analyze students over time to understand their pathways after they arrive at four-year institutions and as they complete their undergraduate degrees, apply to graduate school and begin to matriculate into their graduate programs.

By examining the impact of the intervention and other factors, the study will provide guidance on determining the most effective ways to promote graduate school aspirations and intentions among community college transfer students in computing and other STEM programs across the United States.

“I am excited about the ability to conduct research that has really clear implications for practice,” Blaney said. “This intervention is something that could be scaled up and adopted across other institutions, depending on what we find through the research. At the end of the study, we should be able to offer some practical suggestions for how institutions might broaden pathways from community colleges to graduate programs in computing, as part of their larger efforts to diversify the computing professoriate.”

girl sits at computerBlaney cultivated her interest in transfer pathways over time. Prior to her employment with the university, she worked as a senior data manager on the Building, Recruiting, and Inclusion for Diversity (BRAID) Research Project which aims to increase the percentage of women and students of color majoring in computer science. She has been studying gender equity in undergraduate computing and other STEM programs for more than five years and defines “gender equity” in the context of her work as ensuring that students, especially those from historically underserved groups, have full access to opportunities and the support they need to develop themselves and fully participate in their degree programs and future careers.

“Over the past two years, I narrowed my research agenda to focus more closely on community college pathways as a mechanism for advancing gender equity in computing and other STEM fields,” she said. “This interest was triggered by a problem I observed where research on women in computing has historically centered the experiences of the most privileged women—disproportionately white students with college-educated parents, and often students who even have a parent who is a scientist or has some other type of STEM career.”

Blaney said this poses a significant problem because existing literature on equity in STEM may not be generalizable to most prospective STEM majors, but studying transfer pathways offers a new way to frame this research. She believes these pathways are critical to diversifying STEM fields because community colleges are a primary entry point to higher education for many students

As plans for the study take shape, data collection protocols and intervention programs are being designed to begin collecting data at sites next summer. Longitudinal research is resource and time intensive, so careful planning is required at the front end to ensure quality data for long-term use.

“It will be a few years before we can fully examine our primary research questions, though we will also analyze data and report findings throughout the duration of the project,” Blaney said. “I am excited that this support from NSF is going to allow us to develop a longitudinal database of community college transfer students in computer science, which will lay the groundwork for other future research projects as well.”

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Jacklyn Walling | NAU Communications