Recruiting and Retaining a Diverse Pool of STEM Majors at Ohio State University
Nearly all of Ohio State University’s (OSU) 40,000-some undergraduate students take at least one science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) course as part of their general education requirements. And yet these fields have some of the greatest difficulty recruiting and retaining majors. “These are all intensive fields to study, and with programs that are so intensive you need to have connections with these students so you can mentor them,” says Susan Olesik, professor of chemistry and director of the Ohio House of Science and Engineering. But traditionally underrepresented students, particularly minority and first generation college students, often don’t find mentorship with faculty or get connected with other places they can receive guidance, and these students may be less likely to enroll or persist in STEM majors. OSU is proactively confronting the challenge with interdisciplinary initiatives to attract students to STEM fields and to support them. Programs such as the Ohio House of Science and Engineering coordinate resources across colleges and departments, while STEM scholarships and summer bridge programs help recruit new students, particularly students from underrepresented groups, and support them through the transition to college.
A Coordinated Approach to Recruitment
OSU has long had dynamic STEM programs, but the sheer size of the university—and the considerable diversity that exists even within STEM fields—made it difficult to foster collaboration between and among different colleges and departments. In spring 2011, Chris Andersen became the first director of STEM initiatives, a position created to oversee and coordinate activities and resources for the STEM fields. A major area of focus for Andersen is the STEM pipeline—the interest and preparation level of K-12 students—which OSU addresses in part through a series of outreach programs.
One of those programs is Ohio STEM Ability Alliance, a statewide initiative to increase the number of students with disabilities completing STEM degrees in Ohio. OSU works alongside Wright State University and several community colleges to provide outreach to high school students with disabilities to help prepare those students for college and to match them with the institution that will provide the best fit for their needs. While Andersen is glad to see more STEM majors enrolling at OSU through the program, he emphasizes the importance of finding a good fit for the students, whether or not that means attending OSU. “Once they transfer to one of the institutions, we support them through scholarship money we have received from the state, and through research internships, mentoring, and student learning communities,” he says. “That model is something we’re now in the process of preparing for a program with underrepresented racial minorities.”
Several programs to recruit underrepresented students are already underway in the College of Engineering. The Women in Engineering and Minority Engineering programs begin recruiting students from these groups early, in summer camps that generate interest and provide accelerated learning opportunities for children starting in middle school and continuing through high school. Other programs work through the Ohio House of Science and Engineering (OHSE), which works closely with all the STEM departments, as well as with the College of Education and Human Ecology, on outreach. OHSE assists with several “bridge” programs to recruit and mentor STEM majors, providing precollege prep classes and peer mentoring once the students arrive at OSU. The Pre-College and Cooperative Education Program (PREFACE) is a bridge program for minority students going into engineering, while Ohio's Science & Engineering Talent Expansion Program (OSTEP) focuses primarily on minority and first generation college students entering any of the STEM fields. A third program focuses on transfer students. In addition, OHSE oversees the university’s participation in Choose Ohio First, another statewide scholarship program that aims to increase the number of STEM majors graduating from Ohio colleges and universities. The support these programs provide is particularly important for first generation college students, who are less likely to persist in STEM fields, Olesik says. The bridge programs serve students already admitted to OSU, and OHSE recruits vigorously from the incoming class to make sure as many students as possible have the opportunity to participate. Program coordinators advertise to first generation and minority students in particular, going so far as to call households in Appalachian Ohio to make sure students are aware of the program.
Students from the bridge programs and from the Choose Ohio First scholarship program participate in a stepped mentoring process—younger students are mentored by their older peers until the mentor graduates, at which point the younger students ideally have advanced enough to become mentors to a new class of students. Peer mentoring consultants train students to be effective mentors and receptive mentees. Students may also receive training to become tutors. They may tutor other OSU students, or they may provide live, online tutoring to high school students in rural areas, using SMART board technology to work on the same screen in real time. In addition to providing a needed service, student tutors benefit greatly themselves, Olesik says. “There’s a lot of research that shows the students learn their basic science markedly better by being placed in position where they are now the teacher than if they were just learning it themselves.” They also improve their communication skills as a result of participating in the project.
Curricular Reform and Retention of STEM Majors
OSU was also a participant in Project Kaleidoscope’s Facilitating Interdisciplinary Learning initiative, a three-year project focused on promoting interdisciplinarity and integrative and applied learning in STEM classes. After this and other curriculum-reform projects, new STEM majors at OSU are experiencing a different style of teaching than they might have in years past—especially in their first and second year courses, Andersen says. “There’s a growing realization that in order to have successful students—with the skills they need for the workforce—there are changes that need to be made in the traditional ways STEM courses, especially introductory courses, are taught.” STEM faculty are moving “toward consideration of student-centered kinds of learning approaches that make the learning and activities have more of a real world connection, that are engaging students in ways they had not been engaged previously,” he says. These efforts are particularly important if the university wants to retain the STEM majors it recruits, Olesik says. “Making sure those introductory courses are interactive, so students can see how what they’re learning is important in society and the world, is quite important, especially to first generation college students,” she says.
Caroline Breitenberger, director of the Center for Life Sciences Education (CLSE), agrees. “We don’t want to dim people’s enthusiasm for science—part of why people get turned off is they don’t understand the rationale for what they’re doing, and they think, ‘if this is science, this is not something that engages me.’” This is particularly an issue for first generation and minority students, who may already feel unsupported, she says.
CLSE coordinates introductory biology courses that feed into a number of STEM majors. These courses may have large enrollments, sometimes more than 400 students. In order to create an interactive, student-centered approach to learning in these courses, CLSE has invested in a rigorous training program for graduate teaching assistants, who run lab and recitation sessions capped at twenty-four students. In addition to completing a university-wide orientation, biology TAs take a one-credit pedagogy class every quarter they teach for CLSE. The TAs come from a number of different departments and have different content-area and pedagogical skills, according to Judy Ridgway, assistant director for educational research and development, so the course is adaptable, offering a number of activities and programs to provide TAs with training that is tailored to their needs and that encourages reflective teaching practice.
Ridgway says the graduate students who take full advantage of this training “really do very well in the classroom. The undergrads are very aware that the person in front of them is engaged and knows what she’s doing.” This preparation and engagement is particularly important for TAs who run inquiry-based labs. These lab sections eschew the traditional “cookbook” labs in which students follow strict instructions to complete predesigned experiments. “For students who are really thinking about what they’re doing, cookbook labs can be quite valid,” Breitenberger says. “But for many students it can lead to a rote process … and when they leave they don’t grasp the benefit of the lab and they don’t retain the information they should have been reinforcing.” Inquiry-based labs, by contrast, ask students to determine what questions could be answered using certain materials and to design experiments accordingly. Students completing these labs “are more likely to retain that information and … get a more in-depth understanding of what we do in the lab,” Breitenberger says.
While assessments of biology learning outcomes have shown minimal change, Breitenberger says TAs report that students seem more engaged in labs and that there is more discussion in recitation sessions. She adds that she’d like to start doing more long-term tracking of student progress to evaluate the impact of these and other curricular reforms. “Biology students are getting better and they are more likely to do undergraduate research. But to say that they’re doing it because of inquiry-based labs is a stretch,” she says. Nevertheless, similar reforms are happening across the STEM curriculum, Andersen says. The changes may assist in retaining underrepresented students, Breitenberger says. “To the extent we can make our labs more exciting, to make our courses more exciting, it will help with exactly those issues—retention of all students, but disproportionately those students who are underrepresented.”
Other programs have also seen positive results. The OSTEP bridge program and the Choose Ohio First scholarship program are only three years old, but so far students in these programs have shown significantly higher retention rates than usual for STEM majors—over 90 percent, says Olesik. “We’re starting to look at how to maintain the programs long term and potentially expand to students not in this protected group, “ she says. “Many of our STEM majors could benefit from this type of activity.” After participating in PKAL’s Facilitating Interdisciplinary Learning initiative, STEM programs at OSU may continue to move in this direction, expanding student support and engaging in more high-impact practices in the classroom.
Visit OSU’s website to read more about the Center for Life Science Education, the OSTEP bridge program, the Ohio STEM Ability Alliance, and the Ohio House of Science and Engineering. For more information about interdisciplinary learning in the STEM fields, see Project Kaleidoscope’s Facilitating Interdisciplinary Learning initiative.