STEM competitions

5 strategies to keep STEM students in STEM

4.STEM Personalization is a Must

The obstacles to keeping students engaged in STEM while on a physical campus are high enough, but what happens when those individuals never set foot on campus or meet face-to-face with professors, advisors, and administrators? That’s exactly what the folks at Salt Lake City-based Western Governors University (WGU), a non-profit, online institution, have been grappling with over the last few years. Throw in the fact that 75 percent of those students are adult learners with full-time jobs, says David Leasure, provost, and the hurdles to STEM success rise even higher.

“Our students have busy lives and range in age from 17 to 77,” says Leasure, “yet we’re the number-one ranked education program, especially covering secondary areas in STEM fields. We’ve been able to be the number one producer of STEM teachers in the country.” Leasure says. To maintain that status, he says the college focuses on “personalizing education for everyone.” All students are paired up with mentors when they start their programs, for example, with the relationship continuing straight through to graduation. The college also uses a competency-based program that measures learning progress and allows students to “speed things up when they are learning it quickly and finish the courses early,” says Leasure. “Or, they can slow down when they get into more difficult material.”

5.Analyze Everything

In addition, WGU uses tutoring, flipped classroom sessions (i.e., where faculty lead problem solving sessions for groups of students in difficult subject areas), and a proprietary analytics platform to track progress. “Across all courses, we have rich and detailed information on what students are supposed to be learning and just how well they’re learning it,” says Leasure. A student that fails a competency exam, for example, is referred to his or her mentor for assistance. From there, a specialized course mentor may get involved or a flipped group session scheduled. “In many cases,” says Leasure, “helping students through these obstacles comes down to one-on-one support and tutoring.”

Analytics and measurement are also high priority at Indianapolis-based Butler University, where professors like Robert A. Pribush, are using Pearson’s Mastering Chemistry to identify at-risk students and improve engagement. As a chemistry professor, Pribush estimates that 99 percent of his students are preparing for health-related careers in pharmacy, medicine, and dentistry. Pribush says the analytics platform works well because it aligns with the textbooks he uses in the classroom, where the period usually kicks off with students viewing a specific chapter and/or section via an overhead projector.

On a daily basis, Pribush uses the diagnostic tools to see which students are struggling. Using a color-coded grade book, for example, he can quickly view the progress of 70-90 students (his typical class size) and quickly pick out the red flags. “When someone is struggling, the first thing I do is look at the more detailed diagnostics, which include every answer that the student has submitted for homework, quizzes, and so forth,” says Pribush. “Usually looking at their answers I can tell where they’re going wrong.” He can also see what time students started and stopped working, yet another indication of potential challenges and/or poor study habits. When it comes time to intervene, Pribush offers “virtual” office hours (even at night, when students are in the throes of doing homework) and/or suggests an in-person meeting to discuss the issue.

The process appears to be working:  the university’s Chemistry II students’ average American Chemical Society nationally standardized exam percentiles have increased by 4.5 percent since Mastering Chemistry was rolled out.

“We raised the average performance on this exam substantially,” says Pribush, who adds that students have responded well to the analytical tool. “On surveys, our students choose [the platform] as the major reason why they performed as well as they did (second only to the professor himself or herself).”

Through the looking glass

Based on the national focus of cultivating STEM professionals and the nearly 50-percent attrition rates of good prospects, the opportunity to improve such programs – and the related student engagement – at the higher ed level is both real and necessary. “The bottom line is that these classes are really hard,” says Jessica Gilmartin, vice president of marketing for online STEM engagement platform Piazza in Palo Alto, Calif. “For the young person who dreams his or her entire life about being a scientist, doctor, or developer, the difficult college courses can present quite a shock.”

Despite that and other challenges associated with STEM, LaCourse feels institutions are well positioned to right the ship and begin chipping away at the high levels of attrition. “This country needs more scientists, more medical professionals, and more technology gurus,” says LaCourse. “We also need millions of more people in our workforce to stay competitive in today’s world, and achieving that goal starts with active, interesting learning that keeps students engaged throughout their educational careers and beyond.”

Bridget McCrea is a contributing editor for eCampus News.