Chemeketa Community College on Thursday, April 16. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Soon after she became a full-time college instructor, Shannon Othus-Gault noticed her geology classes didn’t resemble the Chemeketa Community College’s student body.

In 2017, her enrollment was about 18% Latino students - roughly half the share of the student body as a whole.

Moreover, students who were intelligent and dedicated were failing tests, causing them to lose confidence or avoid pursuing other science classes.

Othus-Gault set about changing that, and make sure more students were passing her courses.

“We’re not really taught how to teach - I think we go in with the assumption it worked for me, so it’ll worked for everyone else,” Othus-Gault said of college instructors.

That can mean assuming everyone has good study skills or understands how to prepare for tests, but that’s often not the case, particularly for students who are the first in their family to attend college.

Othus-Gault didn’t change what she taught or the difficulty of her tests. Instead, she spent more class time talking to students about study skills and included a survey after each class test asking students how they studied, how prepared they felt and how she could help them better prepare.

She also reached out to college advisors, who help students select their class schedules, and gave them handouts about what students could expect in her courses so they could steer more students her way.

By 2019, Othus-Gault said she’d doubled the share of Latino students in her classes and recorded a higher passing rate on tests.

“The changes over the last four years are actually pretty incredible,” she said.

Now, she’s trying to bring the strategies that worked for her to a larger group of Chemeketa faculty.

The college recently received a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to aid Chemeketa in getting more students of color and women enrolled in science, technology, engineering and math courses and majors.

When applying for the grant, college leaders analyzed data from recent students and found overall enrollment and participation in such classes was low, despite job market demand for students with science and engineering skills.

Of the roughly 1,000 students who completed an associate’s degree in 2020 intending to transfer to a four-year college, just 7% focused on science or computer science, said Gaelen McAllister, Chemeketa’s director for institutional grant development.

“There (are) some groups we don’t necessarily stereotypically imagine as scientists,” McAllister said. She said that can deter students from taking science classes or pursuing a major because they feel like they don't belong. Simple efforts from faculty, like approaching students doing well in their courses and asking them if they’ve considered further study, can be effective in encouraging students to pursue a major or career.

McAllister said the college looked at a cohort of students from 2015 to 2017 and found low-income students, students of color and women were underrepresented in science and technology courses, and less likely to complete programs in those subjects after enrolling in them.

Less than half of Latino students who enrolled in those programs completed them, and low-income students who did enroll were also much less likely to finish the program.

But changes like the ones Othus-Gault made in her courses to help students with study skills, talk one-on-one with those struggling and reviewing tests can make a difference.

“Things like that that seem obvious, but making an effort to do it and knowing that it’s effective was important,” McAllister said.

The goal of the two-year grant is to study which strategies are effective for encouraging underrepresented students to enroll and succeed in science and technology courses and programs at Chemeketa.

Eight faculty and 25 students are participating this year, as well as peer mentors who will help students.

The grant costs are covering stipends for participants to compensate them for the extra time.

Othus-Gault and math department Chair Keith Schloeman are leading the project.

Participating faculty will attend workshops on strategies that have been shown effective for increasing science and technology enrollment and participation at four-year schools.

“I think about all of the loss of creativity and all of the loss of ideas that we don’t get when we don’t have diversity at the table - all of these students who are so capable and could probably do wonderful things and somehow they get lost or dropped along the way. That’s something that just bothers me - it keeps me up at night,” Othus-Gault said.

Correction: This article was updated to correct the spelling of Shannon Othus-Gault's last name. Salem Reporter apologizes for the error.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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