This paper will present what we learned from implementing a “mini case study” methodology to document the course experiences of students historically underrepresented in STEM fields. Since January 2014, we have evaluated a higher education STEM project that is advancing active learning reforms in introductory STEM courses, toward increasing (1) student course engagement and learning, and (2) the recruitment and retention of students in STEM majors who come from groups historically underrepresented in STEM fields. Our work to date has monitored program implementation and assessed student engagement and learning; yet, neither of these has yielded substantive information on the project’s success with targeted underrepresented students. We are now conducting “mini case studies” of selected underrepresented students to gather this substantive information. With this methodology, we gain access to students’ personal, contextual course experiences with modest intrusion and affordable costs. This presentation will offer our critical reflections on this methodology.
Case studies have been documented as a useful approach for investigating the uniqueness and complexity of a phenomenon through in-depth study (Stake, 1995). By identifying a “case,” an evaluator can study characteristics of the case and processes occurring within the case to contribute to greater understanding of that phenomenon (Stake, 2006). A recognized limitation of the case study methodology is the evaluator’s inability to make generalizations about the larger population of which the case is a member. Thus, there are important factors to consider when deciding to employ a case study methodology including: 1) identifying the phenomenon of interest, 2) determining the utility of the case study approach for studying that phenomenon, 3) selecting the case, and 4) assessing the time, energy, and resources available to investigate the phenomenon. Since evaluators have several factors to consider when deciding to implement a case study methodology, the design of case studies often varies.
In the context of higher education STEM reform program evaluation, we decided to implement a case study methodology to investigate the experiences of students whose experiences were being overlooked by faculty implementing the project. These were students from groups historically underrepresented in STEM majors.
When designing the case study, we acknowledged factors present in the context which were relevant for our work moving forward. Those included limited time, and limited evaluation team members to assist with carrying out the case study. Ultimately, this acknowledgement led us to design what we called a “mini case study,” which involved identifying a small group of students whose course experiences we would seek to begin to understand – using interviews and observations – in a relatively short period of time. This paper presents the “mini case study” as a useful approach for gaining a modest degree of contextual understanding of a key phenomenon within limited resources.
The context at hand is the evaluation of a higher education STEM project that is advancing active learning reforms in introductory STEM courses, toward increasing (1) student course engagement and learning, and (2) the recruitment and retention of students in STEM majors who come from groups historically underrepresented in STEM fields. Throughout the implementation of our evaluation, we recognized that the first project objective received a considerable amount of attention from faculty implementing the project at the departmental-level, as well as from the Co-Principal Investigators who were responsible for leading faculty teams in carrying out the project. At the same time, the objective related to recruitment and retention received less attention, as evidenced by observations of faculty meetings and interviews with faculty from various teams. Thus, we decided to focus on this objective in our evaluation, to understand students’ experiences in the course contexts.
In this paper, we present 1) findings from our mini case study on the course experiences of women students and students from racial and ethnic groups underrepresented in STEM fields, and 2) what we learned from our process of implementing a mini case study.
Stake, R.E. (1995). The art of case study research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Stake, R.E. (2006). Multiple case study analysis. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
American Evaluation Association (AEA). Track: STEM Education and Training. Atlanta, Georgia, United States, October 24-29, 2016.