Universities share best practices to retain STEM students

Best practices that institutions of higher education can use to attract, retain, and support students within STEM fields.


Developing new minds ready to take on careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) may be a national priority in the U.S., but if the current trends in higher education continue, that goal could be pretty difficult to achieve. According to National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) STEM Attrition: College Students’ Paths Into and Out of STEM Fields Statistical Analysis Report, about 28 percent of bachelor’s degree students and 20 percent of associate’s degree students entered a STEM field (i.e., they chose a STEM-related major) at some point within six years of entering postsecondary education in 2003−04.

“Many of these STEM entrants left STEM several years later by either changing majors or leaving college without completing a degree or certificate,” the NCES reports. “A total of 48 percent of bachelor’s degree students and 69 percent of associate’s degree students who entered STEM fields between 2003 and 2009 had left these fields by spring 2009. Roughly one-half of these leavers switched their majors to non-STEM fields, and the rest of them left STEM fields by exiting college before earning a degree or certificate.”

The fact that nearly half of the nation’s STEM career candidates either switch majors or leave school entirely before graduation is alarming, particularly since many of those students have the “highest SAT scores, highest AP science scores, and go to the most prestigious colleges and universities,” stated Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), in a recent eCampusNews article. In the piece, Hrabowski points to the typical lineup of “weed-out” classes as one of the primary drivers of the mass exodus from STEM majors. In other words, survival of the fittest may not actually be the best educational approach in fields where even the brightest, most industrious students are challenged to their very cores.

“Students come into college interested in STEM, but [schools] do a lot of things to push them away,” asserts Bill LaCourse, UMBC’s dean of the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences. “Traditional classroom lectures, for instance, are uninspiring – particularly for brighter students who have to sit in a lecture hall of 400 students trying to stay engaged and on point with subjects that can be especially challenging.”

(Next page: How to STEM the flow)

Stemming the flow

With an eye on future workforce needs and the massive Baby Boomer retirement wave that’s already in full swing, the nation needs students to not only be interested in STEM, but also to follow through on their dreams of becoming the next scientist, doctor, or engineer. According to Glassdoor’s recent list of 25 Highest Paying Jobs In Demand, for example, at least 15 of the 25 jobs that pay the most and are in high demand by employers nationwide require STEM skills. Physicians, pharmacy managers, and software architects sit at the top of that list and demand annual salaries ranging from $130,000 to $212,000.

So while the path to potential success in the STEM fields is clear, the question becomes, how can institutions of higher ed not only attract more students to these fields – many of which are associated with difficult and complex classes – but also keep them engaged for 4+ years? LaCourse says at least some of it comes down to teaching students in a more inspiring manner. “Instead of acting as ‘weeders,’ and looking at the [exit] of some students from STEM as a mark of success,” LaCourse states, “we have to help all of the pupils coming through our programs to be as successful as possible.”

A good first step in that direction, LaCourse continues, is to make STEM student retention a campus-wide effort that starts at the registration and orientation level and extends right through to graduation. “Depending on the size of the school, some students turn into numbers, with no one really knowing if that pupil has run into trouble or challenges with his or her coursework,” says LaCourse. “What colleges don’t always see is the investment that’s required on both sides of the equation, and how to effectively take care of their side of that equation.”

To do its part in bridging “both sides” of the STEM equation, UMBC recently launched a holistic students support initiative that’s being funded through an $18 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant. The funds are being used to create “a national model of comprehensive support to expand and increase the success of students seeking degrees in STEM,” says LaCourse. Known as STEM BUILD@UMBC, the initiative incorporates a number of different efforts, including the use of professional advisors that focus closely on student achievement, progress, and (when needed) intervention; building community to better support students in their educational endeavors; and collaborating with five community colleges, Gallaudet University, and the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

As part of its effort to keep STEM students engaged, UMBC is also “pushing innovation” at the professor level, says LaCourse, and in a largely “blameless” manner. “If someone helps students achieve success, great. But if it didn’t work, then that’s fine too,” he explains. “The important point is that the professor tried something out and we’re here to support that and honor him or her for it, whether it worked or not. We see this is a great way to push innovation through the educational system.”

(Next page: The virtual challenge)

The virtual challenge

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.”

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.

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