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Research Involvement Varies by Race

By Beckett W. Sterner


Hispanic and black students participate less often in undergraduate research than white and Asian students do, according to a recent survey.

In the survey, administered by the Provost’s Office, 20 percent of Hispanic students and 30 percent of black students said that they had done not-for-credit research with faculty in the past year, while 39 percent of Asian students and 40 percent of white students said they had done non-credit research.

In a similar question about research for credit, 19 percent of Hispanic students said that they had participated this year, compared to 29 percent of white students, 31 percent of black students, and 39 percent of Asian students.

When asked how frequently they had engaged in intellectual conversation with a faculty member, 43 percent of Hispanic students, 45 percent of black students, 50 percent of Asian students, and 56 percent of white students said that they had done so in the past year.

International students had higher rates of involvement. 35 percent said they had done non-credit work, and 54 percent said they had done for-credit research. 64 percent of international students reported having had an intellectual conversation with faculty in the past year. The survey did not distinguish between nationalities of international students.

Disparity has been found before

J. Kim Vandiver PhD ’75, Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) faculty director, said that “we have known there was a lower participation rate” for under-represented minorities, but in the last three or four years the “participation rate has begun to increase.” He said that the increase was on the order of 20 percent more under-represented minorities in research projects than there were three or four years ago.

He said that MIT and UROP have been making an effort to reach out to minority groups in the past few years as a result of the disparity.

Michael Bergren, assistant dean for academic and residential initiatives, said that “increasing under-represented [minority] enrollment has definitely been a goal” of the UROP office.

“In the past, there has been funding specifically set aside” for minorities, in part funded by General Electric, Bergren said, but that the program ended after General Electric stopped offering funding.

Vandiver suggested that in order to increase student participation in research, “dorms and living groups should be reaching out to faculty more.” He said that one venue is the Housefellows program, through which MIT provides money for a faculty member to hold social events with living groups.

Across the entire sample, 67 percent of survey respondents said that they had not done non-credit research and 60 percent said that they had not done for-credit research. Forty-six percent said that they had not had an intellectual conversation with a faculty member.

“I’m not surprised” about the student-faculty conversation statistic, Vandiver said. “I think 50 percent is actually pretty good,” considering the number of students who are shy about talking to their professors after class, he said.

The survey, sponsored by the Office of the Provost, was administered this spring and received a response rate of 43 percent, or about 1,750 students. The survey addressed topics ranging from binge drinking to interaction with faculty members, with respect to activity in the past year. For each question, students could select from answers of “never,” “occasionally,” “often,” or “very often.”