Promoting persistence in STEM Learning Community: Getting started

Earlier this week, about 20 faculty members (and one soon-to-be faculty member) met to kick off a learning community focused on promoting persistence in STEM. Although we are from nine different departments (Biochemistry, Biological Sciences, Biomedical Informatics, Chemistry, Earth & Environmental Sciences, Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, Physics & Astronomy, Pharmacology, and Psychology), we bring a common desire to understand the causes of the persistent disparities between underrepresented and well-represented student groups in STEM courses and the associated “pipeline” problem, where underrepresented students are more likely to switch away from STEM majors. We seek to understand both how we can teach our classes to reduce these disparities and promote a positive learning experience for all of our students, as well as policy choices within our departments and schools that may have a broader impact.

In our first meeting, we identified several goals for our group:

  • Develop a more holistic and research-based understanding of the reasons that students leave STEM
    • Tease out the factors that are common across STEM as well as those that are more discipline-specific
  • Develop a common vocabulary for talking about the educational practices that impact student success
  • Identify steps we can implement in our own classes to promote a better student experience
  • Identify non-classroom experiences that can influence students’ educational experience (e.g., undergraduate research, access to timely support) and related policy recommendations

We plan to use the book Talking about Leaving Revisited as a primary resource to frame our discussions, and at the first meeting we discussed Chapter 1, which reviews findings from the original Talking about Leaving (TAL) study and previews the approach used in the newer study. Participants identified several observations from the review that struck them as important or surprising in the findings from the original study

  • The importance of coordinating content within and across courses
  • The challenge of transitioning from high school to undergraduate classes. One participant noted that students only have about three weeks in college before they have their first big assessment in a STEM course, giving them little time to adjust.
  • The realization that students may feel the need to let go of cultural values to succeed in STEM
    • “In order to succeed in STEM majors, students of color often found it necessary to alter or override cultural values that were important to themselves, their families, and their communities” (page 28)
  • The importance of not treating students as homogenous groups (e.g., all underrepresented students don’t have the same cultural background) (Table from page 28)
  • The observation that the women in the study were more influenced by a desire to impact the world and by their own intrinsic interest in the study
  • The perception of STEM courses as “weed out courses” that promote competition rather than collaboration and the related issue of curving grades
Page 15
Page 14

The group identified several questions that we hope to answer, either as we read further in the book or through related research:

  • Have the widespread efforts to incorporate active learning over the last 15 years impacted the experiences students report?
  • Are there exemplar schools or programs that could help us identify approaches that would be a good fit for the Vanderbilt community?
  • Are there ways to tell which courses are taught in non-evidence-based ways, by looking at course evaluations or measures of student learning?
  • Would adopting a pass/high pass/fail approach to grading introductory courses improve the student experience?
  • Could personal attention in terms of advising and partnering first years with seniors have an impact?
  • Would knowledge about STEM-related jobs that don’t require a graduate degree help improve student persistence in STEM majors?
  • When and how do we make our courses unnecessarily hard?  

So many questions! I am very much looking forward to working with this group, learning together and identifying actions we can take individually and collectively to improve our students’ experience. What a great, invigorating, important addition the fall semester!

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