Collaboration offers path to keeping students in STEM classes

September 8, 2017

With attrition high for low-income students and students of color, USC Rossier study finds successes

Photo credit: Image by The Gouger – Licensed under Flickr Creative Commons

Nationally, only about 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in STEM end up graduating with a STEM degree. Students of color, those from low-income backgrounds, and those who are first-generation college students complete degrees at even lower rates, despite their increasing representation in higher education.

To target these challenges, a project at California State University had campuses redesign introductory math and science courses and implement a summer bridge program and a first-year experience, tying all three interventions together to create a seamless experience for students.

Campuses that successfully collaborated and integrated the interventions saw improvements in STEM retention and overall retention, as well as improvements in affective outcomes such as engagement and sense of belonging, according to a new study from USC Rossier.

“In the past, we’ve seen a proliferation of small, disconnected programs that target just one aspect of underrepresented students’ needs in STEM,” said Adrianna Kezar, a professor of higher education at USC Rossier. “This project helped campuses fundamentally rethink the ways in which they were structuring students’ experiences and collaborate across departmental and divisional boundaries to come up with new ways of organizing and working to support STEM students.”

Much of the attrition by students of color occurs in the first year of college, especially after students take an introductory math or science course.  Despite an increasing array of interventions and supports over the last several decades, success rates remain fairly stagnant.

Funded by a $4.6 million grant from the Helmsley Charitable Trust, CSU STEM Collaboratives encouraged faculty members and student affairs staff to collaborate in the creation of an integrated intervention incorporating at least three high-impact practices (HIPs) that aligned supports for STEM students both inside and outside the classroom.  The three-year project was designed to support first-year students in STEM across eight California State University campuses.

Kezar and PhD student Elizabeth Holcombe worked with the CSU system from the beginning of the project to study its impact, using a mixed-methods case study approach.  In addition to examining student outcomes, the report reviews findings on the value of the project for the broader campus community, the process of collaborating across departments and divisions, and implementation challenges that were unique to creating integrated programs.

The authors’ main takeaway is that specific interventions matter less than the integration of multiple support programs and collaboration across the academic affairs/student affairs divide.  Bridging this divide allowed campuses to create a unified community of support that incorporated knowledge from student affairs staff and STEM faculty, included multiple touch points of support for students both inside and outside the classroom, and was predicated on increased learning, strong relationships, and a sense of community.

“Students who participated in the project truly felt like everyone around them was working together to help them succeed,” says Holcombe.

The report has several recommendations for stakeholders interested in undertaking this type of integrated work to improve success for underrepresented students in STEM. These recommendations include:

  • bridging the divide between academic affairs and student affairs;
  • revising institutional policies that discourage collaboration;
  • rethinking workload policies;
  • tapping into and connecting existing programs on campus that already support STEM or first-generation student success;
  • supporting and encouraging faculty engagement,
  • using data to inform program design and revision; and
  • talking to students about their needs

As the CSU system embarks on ambitious goals to improve graduation rates by 2025, the researchers say their report can help inform such efforts at CSU and elsewhere.

“This project has implications for higher education leaders across the country,” notes Kezar.  “We hope that the lessons we distill in this report can inform leaders at other institutions and organizations who are looking for more effective ways to support STEM students from underrepresented backgrounds as they transition to college.”

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