The Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute (MTBI) is a summer research program for undergraduate students, largely from underrepresented minority groups. Founded in 1996, it serves as a 'life-long' mentorship program, providing continuous support for its students and alumni. This study investigates how MTBI supports student development in applied mathematical research. This includes identifying of motivational factors to pursue and develop capacity to complete higher education.
The theoretical lens of developmental psychologists Lev Vygotsky (1978, 1987) and Lois Holzman (2010) that sees learning and development as a social process is used. From this view student development in MTBI is attributed to the collaborative and creative way students co-create the process of becoming scientists. This results in building a continuing network of academic and professional relationships among peers and mentors, in which around three quarters of MTBI PhD graduates come from underrepresented groups.
The extent to which MTBI creates a Vygotskian learning environment is explored from the perspectives of participants who earned doctoral degrees. Previously hypothesized factors (Castillo-Garsow, Castillo-Chavez and Woodley, 2013) that affect participants’ educational and professional development are expanded on.
Factors identified by participants are a passion for the mathematical sciences; desire to grow; enriching collaborative and peer-like interactions; and discovering career options. The self-recognition that they had the ability to be successful, key element of the Vygotskian-Holzman theoretical framework, was a commonly identified theme for their educational development and professional growth.
Participants characterize the collaborative and creative aspects of MTBI. They reported that collaborative dynamics with peers were strengthened as they co-created a learning environment that facilitated and accelerated their understanding of the mathematics needed to address their research. The dynamics of collaboration allowed them to complete complex homework assignments, and helped them formulate and complete their projects. Participants identified the creative environments of their research projects as where creativity emerged in the dynamics of the program.
These data-driven findings characterize for the first time a summer program in the mathematical sciences as a Vygotskian-Holzman environment, that is, a `place’ where participants are seen as capable applied mathematicians, where the dynamics of collaboration and creativity are fundamental components.