BMCC Professors Lead NSF-Funded Study in Retention of Math Majors

February 14, 2024

Two Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) Mathematics Professors—Claire Wladis and Jason Samuels— are leading a five-year study that seeks to better understand why some community college students choose to enroll and then persist as math majors.

Funded in 2023 by a $2.4 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, the study’s aim is to identify factors that influence student retention among two-year college math majors. The researchers hope to develop a model of retention in the two-year context that could inform efforts to further diversify the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) jobs pipeline.

In addition to Professors Wladis and Samuels who are Principal Investigators (PI’s), CUNY Graduate Center and Hunter College Math Professor Barry Cherkas and University of Nebraska Math Professor Kristen Amman are co-PI’s on the research project

Growing the number of community college students from marginalized groups who enroll in, and then complete mathematics degrees is a key component to strengthening the STEM-job pipeline. The need to further diversify the STEM workforce is well documented. Black, Hispanic and women workers remain underrepresented in the STEM workforce compared with their share of all other job categories according to data from the Pew Research Center.

In New York City, the number of STEM-related jobs surged by 67% between 2011 and 2022 according to a recent report from the city’s Economic Development Corporation.  At 193,000 jobs, STEM jobs currently employ as many New Yorkers as does Wall Street.

Professor Wladis says many students from marginalized groups who start college in STEM majors such as math are more likely to switch majors or drop out of college than those who start college in other non-STEM majors such as business.

“While STEM majors at four-year colleges have been the focus of a great deal of published research, very little research exists that is focused on math majors at community colleges,” explained Professor Wladis.  “This, despite the fact roughly half of all students who eventually receive a four-year or graduate degree in math at some point attended a community college.”

Often times, assumptions about what courses students should take, what kinds of preparation they need to be successful, and what kinds of research experiences are best for students, are based on models of four-year students Professor Wladis and her team say.

“But two-year students often have very different lives than four-year students: they are often working to support families, typically have fewer financial resources, have often had less access to advanced math classes prior to college, and are less likely to be able to attend full-time or residential programs,” said Professor Wladis.

Data show that community colleges enroll a higher share of historically underserved students than four-year institutions, including students of color and first-generation students, and are an excellent resource for the further diversification in the growing demand for job-ready workers in STEM fields.

Ultimately, the researchers hope their findings will inform how community college mathematics majors can be best recruited and supported, as well as how mathematics courses and research experiences could be better structured to meet the needs of two-year students.

“By better adapting supports and structures to the needs and strengths of two-year math majors, we could increase the numbers and diversity of two-year math majors who successfully transfer to and complete four-year mathematics programs,” said Professor Wladis. “This could help us to increase and diversify the STEM workforce.”

The BMCC Department of Mathematics offers an Associate of Science (A.S.) degree in Mathematics as well as one in Data Science. The programs are designed to provide you with the first two years of study required to major (or minor) in mathematics, data science or a related field at the senior college level.

  • NSF grant funds study on retention among two-year math majors
  • Researchers say findings could help diversify STEM jobs pipeline
  • Math degree completion key component in diversifying STEM job pipeline

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