Diversity in STEM education: a path to success for all

A study published on the 5th of December in the American Educational Research Association’s journal, AERA Open, reveals a correlation between classroom diversity and academic success in STEM fields.

This research offers a compelling insight into the power of diversity in shaping educational outcomes.

Historically, Black, Latino, and Native American students enrol in STEM majors at rates comparable to their white peers but do not graduate at the same rate. A wealth of literature exists on college student success, yet the impact of peer representation in college courses has not been extensively explored.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Iowa, Renison University College, the University of Michigan at Flint, Washington State University, and Indiana University, scrutinises the effect of classroom diversity on grades. It assessed over 11,800 students across 20 four-year institutions in the United States, focusing on STEM courses from fall 2015 to summer 2017.

Research questions

The study aimed to answer three critical questions:

  1. The impact of URM and first-generation student representation in STEM courses on grades
  2. The variation of this relationship based on students’ URM and first-generation identities
  3. The influence of other factors such as gender, SAT scores, class size, and field of study on this relationship

Using course-level and registrar data, the researchers calculated the proportions of URM and first-generation students in various courses. The primary focus was on student grades, a key indicator of retention and persistence in STEM majors.

The results were telling:

  • A significant positive relationship was found between the proportion of URM students in STEM courses and their grades, particularly among URM students themselves
  • A higher number of first-generation students in courses predicted better academic outcomes for all students, particularly beneficial for first-gen learners
  • When URM student representation was high, grade disparities between URM and white students reduced by 27%
  • With a high representation of first-generation students, their grade disparities diminished by 56%

Nicholas Bowman, a co-author, and professor at the University of Iowa, emphasised: “It’s really notable that improving racial and socioeconomic representation leads to benefits for everyone and reduces inequities at the same time. It is not a zero-sum game.” This study underscores the importance of ‘identity safety’ – the comfort derived from sharing a classroom with peers of similar identities.

The study supports the argument that racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity is not just a moral imperative but also a practical necessity for US colleges and universities. For institutions with limited diversity, strategies like organising courses to increase representation, hiring teaching assistants from minoritised groups, showcasing work by minoritised researchers, and creating identity-focused group activities are recommended.


This research pivots the conversation on diversity in education from a focus on inclusivity to an acknowledgment of its integral role in enhancing academic success for all. It paves the way for more inclusive and effective educational practices, particularly in the STEM fields, where diversity has often been a challenge. Future research should continue to explore and leverage the positive effects of a diverse educational environment to ensure that all students, regardless of their background, have equal opportunities to thrive in their academic pursuits.