Effective Recruiting that Led to a Decline in Diversity

text: Effective Recruiting That Led to a Decline in Diversity

Chadwick Young, Glenn Lo, Kaisa Young, Sarah Bergeron, Abby Adams, Theodore Alivio, Yusheng Dou, Rajesh Komati, Matthew Marlow, Uttam Pokharel, Himanshu Verma, Darcey Wayment, and Xue-hui Wayment*

*Nicholls State University, Thibodaux, Louisiana

Nicholls Chemistry is at a primarily undergraduate institution and offers a B.S. in chemistry and supporting courses in physics, astronomy, and geology. It has 15 faculty and about 100 chemistry majors. Nicholls State University serves the Bayou Region of southeastern Louisiana and has almost 6,000 students (64% white; 36% non-white). The Nicholls State University Department of Chemistry conducts a recruiting program directed towards the region’s schools and the local community. The program includes a Roadshow that takes demonstrations to schools and Field Days that bring students to campus. From 2017-2020, these recruiting efforts were very effective, doubling the size of the department, but they also led to a steep decline in student diversity. Awareness of the shift in diversity led to changes in the recruiting program.

Components of the Recruiting Program: The recruiting program consists of two components: 1) the Nicholls Chemistry Roadshow and 2) the Nicholls Chemistry Field Day. The teacher portal for these opportunities is at www.chemistryroadshow.com

The Nicholls Chemistry Roadshow: The Roadshow is an interactive, engaging presentation wherein a faculty member visits a high school chemistry class. The faculty conducts science demonstrations and chats with a group of 20-40 students about science and employment or educational opportunities in chemistry. The Roadshow is typically aimed only at students enrolled in chemistry. During a single school visit, the Roadshow will reach 50-150 students, and in an academic year, 1,500-2,000 students. The message of the Roadshow is twofold. 

First, the Roadshow presents basic science demonstrations and links them to current research in the Department. For example, the Roadshow presents a demonstration with sodium polyacrylate (a super-absorber) and links that back to work done by organic chemists in the Department. The Chemistry Roadshow website (www.chemistryroadshow.com) has a library of these demonstrations and activities. The Roadshow selects demonstrations that adhere to the following criteria. The demos are:

a) short and spectacular,

b) relevant to the curriculum, and

c) connected to advances in chemistry.

Second, the Roadshow educates students about opportunities in chemistry by describing alumni that have taken one of three pathways: medicine, research, and industry. Many high school students desire to pursue medicine, so the Roadshow emphasizes the importance of chemistry in the practice of medicine. Medical schools typically require 20 hours of chemistry, and the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) requires mastery of inorganic, organic, and biochemistry; occasionally, questions from other areas—instrumental, physical chemistry, etc.—are also on the MCAT. Chemistry is essential to the modern practice of medicine; we tell future pre-med students that they must have a "love of chemistry."

Research is probably not a pathway many have considered, so the Roadshow describes graduate school and what PhD chemists do after earning their degree. Often, students are not aware that PhD studies are free to the student. The presenter describes graduate school as a place to explore the student's own interests under the employment of their university. The Roadshow includes stories about past students who are researchers, describes their careers, and discusses typical salaries for those jobs in our region.

Industry is also a common pathway, so the Roadshow highlights typical salaries in Louisiana (at about $75,000 annually) and the numerous job opportunities for students with an undergraduate degree in chemistry (Louisiana Workforce Commission 2023). The chemical industry is the largest industry in Louisiana and is a major part of the US economy, contributing 25% of the GDP (Trager 2022).

In summary, the message of the Roadshow includes the wonder and applicability of science and the many opportunities for students with a STEM degree.

The Nicholls Chemistry Field Day: The second component of the program includes field trip visits to our Department of Chemistry, so-called "Nicholls Chemistry Field Days." The department invites local teachers to bring their chemistry class—typically 25-50 students—for an annual, half-day field trip. During the visit, the students will typically have three events.  First, they view and interact with the Chemistry Roadshow. This event, similar to that described above, acts as an introduction to the department and opportunities in chemistry. Next, the students complete college-level experiments in chemistry. Finally, students will receive a tour of the department and campus. Teachers can learn more about the Field Days, download relevant materials, and schedule future events at the teacher portal website (www.chemistryroadshow.com).

The Field Day allows the Department to make connections that are otherwise unattainable. Many high school students are intimidated by academic life at a university. The Field Day allows these students to experience a first-year chemistry course, work in a college science lab, and interact with college faculty. It is an immensely valuable event for students who might be uncertain about pursuing a chemistry major in college.

Also, the faculty interact and develop relationships with the teachers. Most schools who attend a Field Day make it part of their annual curriculum; some teachers even assess the students' work for a class grade. The combined effort of the Roadshow and Field Day is to reach students, but another, perhaps more important, goal is to reach the teachers, who often become the department's best recruiters.

Effects of the Recruiting Program: From 2017-2020, the Roadshow focused, primarily, on high-achieving, college-bound students in AP and honors courses. The faculty believed these students were the most likely to attend college, major in chemistry, and excel in the program. These students are more likely to have a social support structure and relevant soft skills to assure success in a rigorous chemistry program. When arranging Roadshow visits, the faculty requested to see only the AP and honors courses; teachers generally agreed that was best. On a few occasions, teachers suggested the students enrolled in regular chemistry courses either lacked the necessary intellect or posed discipline problems. Often, when leaving an honors chemistry course, students in the next regular section would lament at not being able to interact with the Roadshow. 

Usually, the division between honors and regular chemistry classes was racial. The Advocate, a major Louisiana newspaper, reported that 22% of Black high school students in Louisiana take dual-enrollment college-credit courses, while 42% of White students take those courses. Schools with higher Black populations show a starker and less equitable enrollment (Sentell 2021). This trend is also found across the nation, though Louisiana is markedly worse (Quenton 2014). 

During one Roadshow visit, students from regular chemistry classes sat alongside an honors class. The two classes were told to sit on opposing sides of the room. The starkness of the racial divide—mostly White on the honors side and mostly Black on the other—led the Nicholls Chemistry faculty to investigate how the recruiting program impacted diversity in the department. 

Figure 1

Figure 1. Total number of students enrolled in the Nicholls Chemistry Department by year. Solid blue bars indicate years prior to and diagonal striped orange bars indicate years post implementation of Roadshow/Field Day recruiting program.


Figure 2

Figure 2. Percentage of minority students enrolled in the Nicholls Chemistry Department by year. Colors are same as in Figure 1.


With four years of effective recruiting (see Figure 1), the chemistry program grew increasingly less diverse (see Figure 2). Non-White students were once over-represented; almost 40% of chemistry majors were non-White, while 25% of the University was non-White. Over this four-year period (2017-2020), the University had static enrollment and increasing diversity (Figures 3 & 4) while the chemistry department saw increasing enrollment and decreasing diversity (Figures 1 & 2) (Nicholls Institutional Research 2021). These numbers indicate that the focus of our recruiting program—honors and AP courses—drove both the enrollment and diversity changes in the department. In short, the recruiting program was unknowingly working diligently and  successfully to recruit mostly White students.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Total number of undergraduate students at Nicholls by year.


Figure 4

Figure 4. Percentage of minority students at Nicholls by year.


Since 2020, the department shifted the target population for recruiting toward underrepresented students by visiting both honors and regular high school chemistry classes. There is a great value of opportunity afforded by a chemistry degree; it can bring a shift in generational wealth. The department is committed to sharing this opportunity with all students and supporting their career path. Black students are underrepresented in STEM undergraduate programs, earning only 9% of science and engineering bachelor's degrees despite making up 13% of the U.S. population aged 20-34 in 2017 (Trapani & Hale 2019). By building a diverse student body, the department becomes stronger with each student bringing their own talents, work ethic, and life background. In addition, achieving a "critical mass" of underrepresented students in a department can reduce marginalization, increase retention, and create sustainability of a diverse student body (Wilson et al. 2014).

The work to support diversity in the department requires a greater effort than before. Often, teachers will assume the Roadshow is only for their high-achieving students, so the faculty explicitly ask to see students in all chemistry courses. The resulting visit is usually all-day instead of only an hour or two for honors classes. Faculty get to interact with a greater number of students and a greater number of minority students. Many students may not be considering STEM careers or not considering college at all. However, the message is the same for all students: Chemistry is an amazing science that brings incredible opportunities to those who seek STEM careers.

The effects of the remodeled recruiting program will not be evident for some years. The pandemic and Hurricane Ida (Fall 2021) changed the landscape for higher education in south Louisiana and at regional universities causing decreased enrollment in all disciplines from 2020-2022. However, consistent recruiting of all students will help build a better, smarter, and more diverse Department of Chemistry.


Supporting Information: More detailed descriptions of the Nicholls Chemistry Roadshow and Field Days can be found at www.chemistryroadshow.com. This website acts as a portal where teachers can learn about the opportunities and request visits.



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