Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Educational Leadership and Policy Studies

First Advisor

Barri Tinkler

Second Advisor

Jason Stockwell


Despite the demand for a diverse STEM-educated population and workforce, college students have consistently turned away from these disciplines in large numbers, creating a persistent problem that many are trying to address. The aim of the National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program is to inspire, attract, and retain STEM majors. Funding supports undergraduate STEM students' engagement in real-world research alongside STEM mentors. As colleges and universities compete for funding for REUs, it is important to understand the mechanisms within summer research programs that resonate most deeply with undergraduate STEM researchers. While many studies reveal strong correlations between research experiences and STEM aspirations, less is known about the mechanisms within REU programs that support these gains. My research used quantitative and qualitative self-reported data from 20 REU students, 18 of whom were underrepresented minorities in STEM. Over two summers, these students, in cohorts of ten, came to the University of Vermont to participate in a team-oriented, 10-week REU: Interdisciplinary Research on Human Impacts in the Lake Champlain Ecosystem.

Two mixed-methods studies, guided by the frameworks of the theory of possible selves, theory of self-efficacy for research, and social cognitive career theory, revealed four important program mechanisms that gave rise to gains in research skills, confidence and self-efficacy for research, and STEM career aspirations, particularly for individuals from underrepresented minority groups in STEM. Findings suggest that the program fostered student capacity building within a safe, inclusive, and positive setting where students experienced what it feels like to be an active participant in the world of research. Within this context, critical mechanisms that gave rise to gains in research skills, confidence and self-efficacy for research, and STEM career aspirations included: (1) experiential education through interdisciplinary research experiences, (2) student independence and ownership balanced with expert researcher guidance and support, (3) formal and informal mentoring networks where students were mentored and where they mentored others, and (4) the establishment of an intentional learning community that advanced leadership, research skill building, perseverance, and reflection.

Results from this research cannot be generalized beyond the context of the Lake Champlain REU, however, findings are in alignment with the body of literature that highlights the positive effects of REUs on STEM majors' research skills, confidence and self-efficacy for research, and STEM career aspirations. Using mixed methods to identify and understand the within-program mechanisms that support student gains is a valuable new research approach for this field. Recognizing programmatic mechanisms across REU programs can lead to expansion, replication, and application of these models beyond one institution, resulting in more positive gains for more undergraduate STEM researchers.



Number of Pages

165 p.