Improving STEM Retention at CSUEB

California State University–East Bay (CSUEB) is one of twenty-three campuses in the CSU system. In response to its regional context near a large US city that is a hub for technology and innovation, CSUEB launched a new initiative in 2009 to become a STEM-centered institution.

Establish Vision

The goal of CSUEB’s STEM initiative was to increase the capacity of the university for leadership in STEM education in the region, including thorough efforts to enhance teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) at all levels of education. Success of the new initiative would be evidenced by (1) increased student enrollment in STEM majors, with enrollments reflecting the diverse population of the region; (2) widespread integration of research-based pedagogies and programs that engage students and increase the numbers of students persisting in STEM majors to graduation and career; (3) a significant increase in the recruitment of STEM majors into the teacher credential program, with enhanced emphases on deep content knowledge and innovative pedagogies; and (4) a student body in which all members, regardless of major, have an understanding of STEM issues, with the STEM knowledge required for decision making in their daily lives.

Examine Landscape and Conduct Capacity Analysis

Regional data examined as part of the initiative, such as standardized test scores and declining high school graduation rates in K–12 schools, suggest that the level of educational attainment of young people in the region is not keeping pace with the emerging knowledge-based economy, putting the region’s economy at risk as well as the welfare of many individuals. Data also show that despite high earnings and large employment growth projections in STEM and STEM-related jobs, relatively few students who graduate from CSUEB leave with a STEM major. Taken together, the data suggest that in order to increase the number and diversity of students who graduate from high school, who enter CSUEB as first-year students, and who are college and career ready with the intent to major in STEM, and then to retain these students through graduation, we must provide enhanced learning opportunities at all stages of the P–20 education continuum.

Faculty members in the College of Science drafted a concept paper on the creation of a STEM education institute that would draw upon expertise from both the College of Science and the College of Education and Allied Studies. The institute would support STEM faculty research as well as collaborative efforts to transform STEM teaching and learning. The initial challenge faced was funding for such an institute. The university advancement office sought and secured the external funding that was used to hire an interim director. The interim director worked with the dean of the College of Education and Allied Studies, the dean of the College of Science, and faculty representatives from major departments across both colleges to further develop a comprehensive proposal for an institute. Approvals were granted by the Academic Senate, the provost, and the campus president in the spring of 2012. The newly established Institute for STEM Education’s mission was to advance STEM teaching and learning in parallel with the rapidly changing knowledge, practices, and needs in STEM fields and disciplines. The institute focused on building and supporting the breadth of diversity of the community and students, with a special emphasis on underrepresented groups in STEM disciplines.

Individuals who had worked on the proposal for the institute became the founding members of the board of advisors. They then developed a governance structure for the institute that has evolved across its early development years. The institute board, which met twice a month during the academic year, then set out to gather and analyze additional data across the education continuum. For example, the research and data this team collected made clear the need to address early numeracy development among young children in preschool and grades K–3, given its profound effect on future success in high school mathematics. The data also demonstrated how little science was being taught in the early grades and pointed to the need to enhance learning opportunities for students in the region. Other data suggested that while many students were getting STEM learning opportunities in high school, there was significant room for improvement. Six area school districts were home to sixty “linked learning” pathways in which college prep coursework is combined with career technical education and work-based learning experiences. The institute board also did a detailed analysis of community college transfer students, finding that there was a need to increase the percentage of students transferring to CSUEB to major in STEM fields, particularly computer science and engineering. Additionally, a closer look at the incoming first-year student cohort of 2007 revealed that the problems with retention of STEM majors begin within the first year with a 23 percent loss of the cohort and continues through year six with a cumulative loss of 74 percent loss (fig. 1).

Figure 1. The Pattern of Retention (Cumulative Percent Loss) by Year for the 2005 Cohort of Incoming First-Year Students Declaring a STEM Major at CSUEB (No Data Are Published for Year Three)



Many CSUEB faculty members cited students’ needs for placement in developmental mathematics or English language arts as a key factor in the loss of STEM majors. An examination of the data for all students indicated that 54 percent of CSUEB first-year students required developmental English. Fifty-two percent required developmental math, with roughly one-third requiring Math 800 (the first course covering pre-Algebra in a three-course sequence). Roughly one-third of students did not pass Math 800 in the fall quarter. Thirty-nine percent of students needing these courses required both developmental English and math. Retention data for the fall 2005 cohort of all first-time, full-time first-year students who took developmental math and/or English classes revealed a pattern of loss that ranged from 20 percent by the end of year one to 41 percent of the total cohort by year four (fig. 2). Data disaggregated for STEM majors are needed and may help explain the low retention rates evident in STEM majors.

Figure 2. The Pattern of Retention (Cumulative Percent Loss) for the CSUEB 2005 Cohort of All First-time, Full-time, First-Year Students Requiring Developmental Math and/or English Classes (No Data Are Published for Year Three)


Identify and Analyze Challenges and Opportunities

The above-mentioned data revealed the need to (1) accelerate the development of STEM majors’ English and math capabilities so that students meet minimum qualifications needed to take courses required within the major as soon as possible; (2) strengthen the connection to STEM for students who are placed in developmental math and/or English classes and may be in first-year learning clusters (i.e., three thematically linked courses) that are not specifically designed for STEM majors; and (3) improve the engagement and persistence of students in STEM majors, which can, in turn, ultimately lead to retention and graduation of all students in these majors.

Determine Readiness for Action

The institute staff worked with faculty members to develop initiatives that would address the three high-need areas indicated above. The diverse array of initiatives put forth by faculty members demonstrated the high level of interest and desire to improve learning outcomes for the university’s diverse student body. Because we believed that low retention and graduation rates are a result of a variety of factors and that attaining better outcomes is a complex endeavor, we decided to use multiple approaches in the initiatives. There is no “one size fits all” solution. Faculty also determined that the institute should become a “home” for ongoing data collection, analysis, strategic planning, and support for the execution of initiatives, which demonstrated commitment to bringing about larger scale change. They wrote and received grants to fund this initiative.

Choose/Implement Strategies

All planned initiatives are in early stages of implementation, so it is too soon to know their effects on student development, retention, and graduation. Each initiative has a research element, which will allow us to identify significant accomplishments and challenges and to inform next steps. With assistance from institute staff, findings will be shared with the departments and colleges represented on the institute’s board of directors, across the campus, and with the campus community more generally.

Funding obtained since the institute’s establishment has permitted the hiring of a student case manager who will provide wraparound support for STEM majors, making use of more granular data through a case management system. We anticipate more detailed data, for example, about STEM majors and the reasons why they do or do not persist under different conditions. Data systems are currently being piloted that will allow more fine-grain analyses of students’ individual paths and trajectories.

Measure Results

The assessment methods we used include quantitative data collection and analysis as well as empirically based ethnographic research methods. These research methods will allow us to determine how innovations are enacted in instructional settings, what happens to students under various conditions, etc. As part of some projects, such as the redesign of a remedial math course, staff researchers have assisted the principal investigators to develop questions that help determine the most effective instructional changes. At the same time, they are surveying and interviewing sample students in order to measure shifts in attitudes toward STEM. Together, they will be examining student work samples in order to assess shifts in persistence in problem solving as well as shifts in understanding, especially in new conceptual and inquiry-based pedagogies. Finally, faculty members are measuring what learning opportunities are made available to students through the collection of ethnographic field notes, interviews of graduate student instructors, collection of instructor reflections, and student focus groups. In recent months, staff researchers have partnered with the Center for Student Research to develop additional research capacity by engaging students in the work. This affords CSUEB students with opportunities for mentorship and applied learning.

Disseminate Results and Plan Next Steps

Key findings surrounding the institute’s development, the development of specific initiatives, and related research are being shared through various campus community events. For example, during the campus’ Week of Scholarship, faculty and students give presentations and poster sessions featuring their work and research findings related to STEM education. The institute also shares its work with the campus community through poster sessions at the annual Diversity Day. Dissemination across the local region is supported by events such as a quarterly leadership conference for school district partners sponsored by the institute’s Integrated Middle School Science project.

Caron Inouye, associate professor, department of biological sciences; Chung-Hsing Ouyang, associate professor, department of mathematics and computer science; Stephanie Couch, director of the Gateways East Bay STEM Network and director of CSU East Bay Institute for STEM Education; and Elizabeth Yeager, lead researcher— all of Institute for STEM Education, California State University–East Bay

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