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STEM Major Retention and Teaching Innovation

May 29, 2014

Students participate in a science lab course in Drexel's Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building

Drexel University has been awarded funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) of $1.2 million over five years to implement strategies intended to increase the retention of undergraduate students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors. Drexel’s project is focused on the theme of developing communities that improve student learning and faculty use of teaching approaches that improve retention.

Drexel is one of only 37 institutions nationwide to receive the grant, out of 203 research universities invited to apply. HHMI issued this challenge for universities to develop effective strategies that will lead to significant and sustained persistence in science by all students, including those students who belong to groups underrepresented in science.

The programs address a significant point in the STEM education pipeline at which many students do not persist: The early years of undergraduate education. Sixty percent of all undergraduates who begin college intending to major in STEM subjects do not complete a bachelor’s degree in STEM – a number that rises to 80 percent among undergraduates from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. Most of the attrition occurs in the first two years of college, when students are taking introductory courses in chemistry, math and biology.

The announcement of HHMI’s awards funding undergraduate STEM retention programs follows closely on the U.S. White House earlier this week announcing several initiatives to improve STEM education and mentoring for students in K-12 classrooms. Philadelphia was selected as one of seven cities that will engage in the US2020 mentoring program for youth in STEM.

In Drexel’s program, communities of incoming undergraduate STEM students will be formed in a freshman year course. The course will provide role models (upper level undergraduates and faculty) that will foster team building to support student academic and social success. This community development is intended to help students with their adjustment to college life, support their feeling of belonging within the Drexel community and help develop deeper intellectual connections for students within their intended STEM major. All of these factors are known to improve student retention. Drexel already requires all first-year students to participate in the UNIV-101 “Drexel Experience” course that places all students in a cohort of other students from their major – providing an ideal structure in which to establish the new mentored student learning communities.   

Selected STEM faculty at Drexel will also engage in mentored learning communities, supporting their development as innovative educators who teach using tools known to be the most effective in supporting student learning.

“Teaching strategies that engage students in the classroom have been demonstrated to improve STEM student retention,” said Jennifer Stanford, PhD, an assistant professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences who is taking a leading role in implementing this project. “This includes approaches such as group problem solving, answering questions on course content with immediate feedback, case discussions or in-class debates.”

The program will provide additional support for faculty who are incorporating these approaches into their classrooms providing incentives, such as a yearly award that recognizes innovative teaching. 

These strategies will impact students in all STEM disciplines and will engage STEM faculty and administrators across Drexel, in all colleges and schools where STEM majors are offered.

“It is our intention that these HHMI funded initiatives will be sustained long after the five-year award is finished,” said Donna Murasko, PhD, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator on Drexel’s HHMI grant. “We also intend to share our findings on STEM educational research with STEM educators across the region and nation. To accomplish this, Drexel will host a yearly symposium to bring together faculty and administrators from partner institutions to present outcomes from activities intended to improve STEM education.” 

“We anticipate that this culture of mentored communities will become the hallmark of STEM disciplines within Drexel University, and will serve as a model for improving STEM education on other campuses,” Murasko said.

As part of this grant, Drexel will develop a Center for the Advancement of STEM Teaching and Learning (CASTL). CASTL will bring together faculty, administrators, students and staff from across Drexel’s campus to collaborate on projects focused on improving STEM education. Such projects will include providing training to faculty and students interested in learning how to teach STEM students more effectively and developing research projects to understand how to improve methods of teaching STEM students. 

Additional Drexel faculty members were instrumental in developing this multidisciplinary project were: Daniel King, PhD, associate professor of chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences and Aleister Saunders, PhD, associate professor of biology and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Mark Greenberg, PhD, provost of the University, Joseph Hughes, PhD, dean of the College of Engineering and David Fenske, PhD, dean of the College of Computing and Informatics will serve with Murasko on the executive committee to oversee the implementation of the project.

Drexel is the only university in Philadelphia to receive this competitive grant from HHMI. Other recipients in Pennsylvania are Lehigh University and the University of Pittsburgh.