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Introductory STEM Courses: Sorting, Harvesting, or Nurturing Student Talent

This new project is sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. The study will examine the campus structures, pedagogical strategies, and student experiences that facilitate student learning, retention in science, and skill development in introductory science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses. Specific attention is given to how these structures and experiences affect the scientific learning and development of underrepresented racial minority students given their increased attrition rates in STEM fields.

These new funds will allow the research team to expand the classroom and student sample from an earlier study that focused on distinguishing between performance (grades), prior academic preparation, and the essential habits of mind for scientific work in introductory courses. In that study, we found that course grades are not significantly related to the skills and dispositions necessary for future success in science. This extension of the research seeks to identify alternative measures of student success that go beyond course grades in addition to understanding the effects of grading practices in introductory courses.

With the ability to examine and account for varied teaching strategies and course structures, this study intends to identify the effective pedagogical practices for fostering student learning and the development of skills and dispositions necessary for student success in future STEM courses. Successful navigation of introductory coursework is critical to expanding and diversifying the talent pool of science majors and preparing students for success in STEM careers.

The implementation of the study will entail surveying more than 6,000 students across 75 introductory science and math courses at 15 colleges and universities across the U.S. Additionally, we will survey the 75 faculty members teaching the introductory courses covered in our student sample. We will administer these surveys during the winter and spring of 2010.

Following the student and faculty surveys, we will visit up to eight of these institutions to understand how campuses are organized for undergraduate learning in science. Additionally, we will conduct focus groups and interviews with students and faculty on these campuses to develop a more in-depth understanding of student experiences and faculty perspectives. We have tentatively scheduled our site visits for late summer and early fall of 2010. The research team will work directly with intervention programs targeted at improving student performance in introductory STEM courses.

Findings will be shared with the participating institutions and disseminated via the web and other venues. The findings will paramount in providing new information on how students are sorted, how talent is identified, and how it can be developed and diversified to meet the needs of the workforce and national economy. Although this particular project represents a new grant, this stream of research connects to our ongoing longitudinal study of students who entered college in 2004. For more information on that project, please click here.