FSU supports student success in STEM through SI, new practices

(Photo by Brad Leuchte)

Following Massachusetts’ initiative for excellence in STEM education, Framingham State University has implemented a number of programs to improve STEM retention with its sister schools.

STEM stands for a group of disciplines – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  Massachusetts has created goals for excellence in STEM education. The STEM Education Coalition, (a national advocacy group) works to show the importance of the country being an economic and technological leader, and is now working on getting the rest of the country on board.

“The goal is to make the student more successful,” said Margaret Carroll, dean of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“Currently, if a student comes in, having declared a major in science … the chance that they will still be a science major in the fall of their sophomore year is about 69 percent,” said Carroll. “That is up from 59 percent just a couple of years ago.”

According to Carroll, in 2011, the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education came to FSU, and its sister institutions, and asked how the schools were going to improve STEM retention.

Representatives from each university started meeting to discuss and share their best practices to improve these fields. Over the years, each institution has implemented different initiatives to improve STEM retention, said Carroll.

For example, FSU’s STEM departments tested Supplemental Instruction (SI), while Bridgewater State University’s STEM departments experimented with a summer bridge program.

David Cedrone, the vice chancellor of higher education, has attended the meetings a number of times since 2011, and said he would give some money to support the programs if the institutions put together a grant, according to Carroll.

At the end of January, the universities wrote a proposal for a grant of $45,000 for each institution to support STEM retention. This includes SI, professional development, reducing class sizes and a summer bridge program.

Carroll said she hopes to hear back from the Department of Higher Education soon. Once the proposal is approved, the STEM departments would have until the spring of 2016 to spend the money.

SI is a “tutoring model” in which a student, who has already taken the class, preferably the semester before, sits in on all the lectures as an SI instructor.

SI is a way for students to have a resource to review, practice and develop study skills outside of the classroom, said Carroll. SI instructors are required to hold meetings and scheduled hours for students.

“It is a very structured form of tutoring,” said Carroll. “We started it in, I believe, 2011 with maybe three or four courses. There are maybe 36 courses this semester with supplemental instructors.”

Carroll added, “SI has been funded in part from the Academic Affairs’ budget because we believe that we need to support these students and their chances for success.”

Student fees and the state finance all tutors, according to Carroll.

Another approach is professional development for instructors and faculty members. The universities were given several Vision Grants from the state to support professional development over the years.

Since then, faculty have been meeting at least twice a year to present on their teaching practices. Some faculty members used Ken Bains’ concept called “Natural Critical Learning Environment” to readjust their “gateway” STEM courses such as pre-calculus.

This spring, Carroll is hoping FSU will be hosting a conference on teaching new pedagogies, or way of teaching, for it’s sister institutions and faculty on campus.

In addition, FSU is working with Framingham Public Schools to improve teacher prep, or professional development, for middle school science teachers. A grant was submitted with the Framingham Public Schools, specifically for the Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School, said Carroll.

Also, juniors in high school are offered the Accuplacer exam so they would know their placement scores in math if they plan to attend college. Students would have senior year to better prepare themselves.

College students are more likely to stay in their majors and be more successful if they can pass their courses the first time and have access to the tools they need, according to Carroll.

Another approach is to reduce the size of lectures from roughly 120 students to no more than 60. The STEM program grew very rapidly, said Carroll. In 2010, there were 660 science students at FSU. In the fall of 2014, there were 1,033. As a result, lectures grew in size as well.

When there are 120-150 students in a classroom, “a professor just stands in front of the room and talks,” said Carroll.

“That’s all you can do.”

To increase enrollment, more sections of classes will be offered in the fall semester. This will make scheduling more flexible for students, said Carroll.

“In the future, we’ll be able to offer sections in reverse, so if a student comes in and they aren’t ready, they can take a semester to [better prepare themselves],” said Carroll. “If they fail one of those courses, they won’t have to wait a whole year to retake it.”

Catherine Dignam, an associate chemistry professor and STEM retention coordinator, Sarah Pilkenton, the chair of the chemistry and food science department,  and LaDonna Bridges, the director of Academic Support and Disability Services and co-director of CASA, have analyzed and compared data from admissions to better numerically identify which incoming students are at risk of failing a STEM subject, such as biology or chemistry, said Carroll.

To better prepare incoming students, FSU is planning to offer a summer bridge program, according to Carroll.  The students who have already been accepted into the University but  are identified to be at risk, would be offered the chance to take the courses in advance over the summer, which would be taught by FSU faculty. The program has an emphasis in the math fields, she said. It also promotes community building.

“If they build a support structure and they get to know each other in advance, they are more likely to move forward together,” said Carroll.

Likewise, Dignam said research shows that “when students in any discipline feel like they belong to a group that is invested in trying to accomplish something – in this case their bachelor’s degree in a science, which is very challenging” – then the outcome will be more successful.

Mikaela Ranahan, a sophomore biology major with a focus in pre-medical, said, “Our society always needs new inputs to help further advance in science. As a STEM major, you learn a lot about scientific analysis and how to look at things from a different perspective … a scientific one.”

Ranahan believes the courses are difficult and stressful, but her secret to sticking with the major and succeeding is studying, going for extra help and taking advantage of SI.

Ranahan said, “The advice I would give to STEM [coordinators] would be to have more faculty. So many students cannot get into the classes they need. Also, I think it would be great if they could focus on students’ grades and if they notice almost all of the class not doing well, they could bring in more extra help for students.”

Kenechi Izuchi, a senior biology major, said, “There are so many different career opportunities in STEM. I think FSU does a wonderful job getting people ready.”

Madison Casey, a freshman biology major, said she found that the biggest complaint from students is that “you are behind before you have even started.”

She said a student is not set up for failure, but the amount of work that is on a science major’s plate is overwhelming.

Samantha Harris, a junior elementary education major with a math coordinate, tutors in the math lounge on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“I have definitely seen a few more people this year coming in,” said Harris. “I used to hang out in here, and not a lot of people showed up. A lot more people come in now and ask for extra help.”

She added, “Sometimes, it’s better to get another students perspective than a professor’s perspective.”

Seana Carrigan, a junior environmental science major, said “STEM majors are important because without them, we wouldn’t have students researching and discovering new ideas and ways to do things and figuring out new solutions to world problems.

“I also think it’s important for more women to pursue STEM majors because it is a male-dominated field,” she added.

Sydney Hurrell, a sophomore biology major, said, “I think it takes a lot of drive and personal discipline to succeed as a STEM major. It’s a lot of work, but if you like what major you’ve chosen, it will all be worth it in the end. You just have to think about the end goal and it gets you through the tough parts.

“It is really important for the departments to work cohesively together to offer the best that they can to their students,” she added.

Ezequiel De Leon, a sophomore chemistry major, said, “The University’s retention rate, not necessarily just that of the STEM disciplines, is in need of improvement, and it is a topic that is certainly not being ignored. I have myself seen our low retention rates beginning with my first-year general chemistry class where during the first weeks, students did not have a place to sit until three quarters of the way through the semester where one third of the seats were empty.”

Leon believes SI has helped his class performance. “As a current Supplemental Instructor for the Biology Department, I have seen how successful SI is at helping other students develop a deeper understanding of the material at hand,” he continued.

Leon added, “I know the education I am getting from FSU is one of quality and one of affordability and I am proud to be obtaining my Bachelors degree from Framingham State.”

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