Students Gaining Access to the Community of Practice of Environmental Studies

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type



Feinstein School of Education and Human Development

Department (Manual Entry)

Education Doctoral Program


Although nearly equivalent percentages of black and white students entering college aspire to earn degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), a much smaller percentage of black students than white undergraduates complete STEM degrees (HERI, 2010). Thirty-six percent of black undergraduates who initially pursue STEM fields and go on to earn bachelor’s degrees switch to non-STEM majors, and 29.3 percent leave college before graduating, a rate 10 percentage points higher than that of their white counterparts (19.8 percent) (Chen, 2013). In the environmental sciences, of the 4,802 degree recipients in 2010, 81 percent (3,879) were white and only 2 percent (97) were black (NSF Table 5-7, 2010). As has long been recognized, America is producing too few scientists and far too few from the groups historically underrepresented in higher education. The situation is especially acute in the environmental sciences. Interventions designed to address these disparities have concentrated on programmatic and pedagogical enhancements, but most lack a theoretical explanation for the positive outcomes they claim to achieve.

This study employed interviews with fifteen black and white undergraduates who enrolled in introductory environmental science/studies at a selective liberal arts college. Applying the theory of Community of Practice, along with insights and concepts from Critical Race Theory and Stereotype Threat, the study shows how interactions with faculty and peers affected the extent and quality of involvement students had with the field of environmental sciences. Looking at the factors that discouraged students from participating in the Community of Practice of the environmental sciences, the study draws conclusions about effective practices and makes recommendations for attracting students from underrepresented groups to scientific fields and the careers for which degrees in those fields can prepare them.