STEM Student Success through System-Wide Coordination

The California State University (CSU), with twenty-three campuses, 447,000 students, and 45,000 faculty and staff, is the largest, the most diverse, and one of the most affordable university systems in the country. CSU’s mission is to provide affordable, high-quality education to the top third of the state’s high school graduates, offering degrees at the master’s and bachelor’s level, with some professional doctorates added in the last few years. Campuses small and large serve diverse regional communities—rural and urban—from Arcata in the north to San Diego in the south. CSU is the engine of economic prosperity, civic health, and upward mobility in the state. In the 2011–2012 academic year, all of the CSU campuses graduated 76,427 baccalaureates; 10,651 of them were science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students. The CSU system educates more Hispanic, African American, and American Indian undergraduates than all other institutions in the state combined. But six-year graduation rates are near 50 percent and lower for students of color. Overall graduation rates in STEM are even lower: 33 percent of all students who entered as first-time, full-time, first-year students in 2008 and declared a STEM major graduated in STEM, and drop-offs are steeper for underrepresented minority students.

While rich out-of-classroom STEM learning communities are common across CSU campuses, in-classroom experiences remain largely lecture-formatted, especially in introductory STEM courses. Therefore, the Keck/PKAL Team, a team of administrators responsible for many of the CSU system’s sustained investments in STEM education and learning, was assembled. We believed the Keck/PKAL project might help us identify strategies to improve STEM learning and scale evidence-based practices system-wide, as we recognized that there was a large organizational change component embedded in the work. What follows is our discovery narrative presented as an abbreviated case study.

Establish Vision

We hypothesized that a collaborative community of university leaders could aggregate and coordinate efforts to facilitate and support the layering of inquiry-based, experiential, or participatory learning throughout campus STEM degree programs. We were familiar with evidence showing that engaging, “high-impact practices” (Kuh 2008) deepen learning, improve student persistence, and close achievement gaps. Our initial vision incorporated our desire to see STEM students take risks, make discoveries, and address big questions as engaged scholars over the course of their degree attainment at CSU campuses. In the longer term, we wanted to permanently improve the ability of CSU to graduate all students interested in STEM majors.

At the start, team members recognized that they did not share an administrative organizational structure, nor did they report to a common organizational point of contact. Team members had not previously collaborated around a strategic change initiative. Like change agents in departmental settings, individual Keck/PKAL team members were driving evidence-based STEM-related initiatives, but their efforts were not strategically coordinated. In hindsight, the accidental design of the Keck/PKAL team turned out to be a happy coincidence, unintentionally mirroring a “collaborative academic leadership” team (Humphreys 2013). It is important to note that the team brought together CSU experts on student engagement and success, high-impact practices, evidence-based STEM instructional practices, and communities of learning and practice. In this way the team represented a broad range of views of the student experience on our campuses. However, as one team member commented, “We never really delved into whether each member of the team saw a need for system-wide coordination.” The team scheduled recurring teleconferences and began to share data and perspectives on effective STEM education.

Examine Landscape and Conduct Capacity Analysis

In 2009, CSU joined Access to Success—a consortium of state systems organized by the National Association of System Heads and funded by the Education Trust—to boost graduation rates and close achievement gaps. As a result, most Keck/PKAL team members were familiar with the goals, objectives, and campus efforts associated with the CSU Graduation Initiative. However, while the Graduation Initiative focused on support for high-impact practices and encouraged campuses to use evidence- and data-based strategies, we quickly discovered team members did not have a shared vision regarding high-impact practices and their role in effective STEM education.

The most common finding was that some team members regarded high-impact practices as extracurricular activities, not part of or integrated with classrooms, instructional practices, or desired student learning outcomes. In fact, as our discussions progressed, we noted a separation or lack of coordination between student success efforts and instructional practices in the STEM curriculum. As a result, we spent significant time during the fall of 2012 on a deliberative learning process. We discussed the national call for undergraduate STEM education reform, what barriers to reform STEM departments might be facing, what evidence-based practices were adopted across the system, and what gaps the Keck/PKAL team might help fill. We spent significant time discussing high-impact practices and sharing discipline-based education research. The team became familiar with system-wide data on STEM student persistence, “switching” (out of STEM) rates, and graduation rates using new data systems developed as part of the CSU Graduation Initiative.

Team members visited CSU universities to interview campus-based Keck/PKAL teams. Campus-based faculty and administrators consistently expressed the need for a centralized “voice” or resource to raise awareness of evidence-based practices and their impacts on STEM student success. Campus-based experts suggested that our initial strategy of aggregating and coordinating system-wide STEM-related initiatives was not enough. Deeper integration of evidence-based practices within the curriculum was needed system-wide. Campus advisors suggested visible, centralized advocacy was needed to scale and embed evidence-based practices into the STEM curriculum. Faculty and administrators interviewed and surveyed agreed that the most important role for the system office team would be as convener. Relying on the “birds of a feather” effect, faculty said they greatly valued system-office-hosted discussions, deliberations, and learning and sharing with others facing similar challenges and issues. Campus teams said they wanted a centralized Effective STEM Education initiative to rely upon and refer to as campus STEM education initiatives took root.

Identify and Analyze Challenges and Opportunities

As a team, we decided to bring in a facilitator to help pull our team together, get focused, and get ready to move forward. We planned an all-day, facilitated, face-to-face retreat and included other stakeholders and leaders from the system office. We agreed upon tactics grounded in work by Kezar (2012) that recommends focusing on three key components: (1) deliberation and discussion, (2) networks, and (3) external support and incentives. A refined vision was formed: Our diverse pool of STEM graduates, with their unique qualifications and talent, will be prepared to meet the challenges and opportunities in our global society. Evidence of the success would be (1) increased resources and partnerships for advancing effective STEM education; (2) increased support and rewards for implementing effective high-impact practices; (3) a highly visible, system-wide entity to coordinate, convene, advise, and act as an effective STEM education resource; (4) a CSU STEM education universally enhanced by improved articulation of evidence-based practices and curriculum; and (5) stronger connections among system-wide programs and initiatives that all together lead to (6) STEM graduates and faculty that better reflect the state’s demographics.

Choose Strategies and Determine Readiness for Action

During the team retreat, we also decided to focus on two strategies: (1) increasing resources and partnerships for advancing STEM educational effectiveness system-wide and (2) developing a highly visible, system-wide entity to coordinate, convene, advise, and advocate for effective STEM education. We identified a number of grant opportunities offered by external funding agencies and went into action writing proposals to support these strategies. By winter 2014, we successfully garnered two new external grants totaling more than $5 million in support for effective STEM education efforts across CSU. Together, the two grants provide resources, personnel, and financial support for campus-wide efforts to improve undergraduate STEM education. The Keck/PKAL team continues to work together to execute the two new grant-funded initiatives, including plans to organize annual system-wide Effective STEM Education Summits. These summits will gather not only grant-supported campus teams but also other campus teams funded by system-wide programs and initiatives, as well as other faculty and administrators interested in learning how to improve STEM education and STEM faculty development.

A reflection of our process indicates that the Keck/PKAL team continually encountered challenges and opportunities related to our system-wide perspective. Our team agreed early in the process that organizational and cultural change across a system as large as the California State University would not be accomplished using top-down directives. Chancellor’s office or system-wide administrators typically have earlier career experience on university campuses working directly with students and faculty. Thus, the first instinct of a system-wide administrator is to defer to campus expertise. All members of the Keck/PKAL team were surprised by campus feedback asking for greater centralized advocacy and leadership around effective STEM education initiatives. We are pleased we were able to find external grants and partners to support and pilot strategic initiatives around effective STEM education system-wide. However, it will take campus commitment, intentional cross-divisional partnerships, and creativity to institutionalize new evidence-based practices in STEM education within public higher education budgets. Ongoing advocacy for effective STEM education from the CSU Office of the Chancellor, along with data to drive evidence-based policy and decision making, will be of pivotal importance.



Kuh, George. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Humphreys, Debra, and Patrick Kelly. 2013. How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment: A Report on Earnings and Long-Term Career Paths. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Kezar, Adrianna. 2012. “The Path to Pedagogical Reform in the Sciences: Engaging Mutual Adaptation and Social Movement Models of Change.” Liberal Education 98 (1): 40–46.

Susan Baxter, executive director, Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology; Judy Botelho, director, Center for Community Engagement; and Ken O’Donnell, senior director, Student Engagement and Academic Initiatives and Partnerships—all of California State University

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