Pipeline to success for and retention of STEM students: Integrating assessment research and pedagogical practices to improve first-year student outcomes

Project No.
PI Name
Nikki Lewis
Virginia Tech


Abstract 1

Pipeline to success for and retention of STEM students: Integrating assessment research and pedagogical practices to improve first-year student outcomes

Presentation Type
Stephanie N. Lewis, George Kuster, Brandon Bear, Matt Grimes, Kathryne McConnell, Debbie Wilson, Lori Blanc, and Jill Sible


Undergraduate education research literature indicates that the first year of study at a university can be stressful for students and often has the greatest impact on field of study choice and degree completion. Adapting to a new learning process, developing a network of peers, and misconceptions about college can influence if an individual, especially women and underrepresented minorities, stays in a STEM major and stays at the university through graduation. Because community building strongly influences successful transitions, this concept can be used to develop programming that improves retention in STEM by establishing a community of peers that mentor and guide each other through at least the first two years at university. Continuous assessment of student success rates is also pivotal to updating the programming to address the needs of each population of incoming students, and develop leaders within the group of peers to maintain progression and success.


The Virginia Tech STEP Summer Bridge Program (SBP) and Curie Living-Learning Community (LLC) were initiated in 2012 to address retention rates for undergraduates majoring in the physical and quantitative sciences through short- and long-term interventions, respectively. The short-term goals address knowledge gaps that can be a source of stress for first-year students, while the long-term interventions address the community building and leadership development skills that translate to confident students capable of evaluating and solving problems in the classroom and in their communities.


The three-week SBP focuses on practice and development of math skills deemed necessary to progress through the first semester chemistry, physics and mathematics courses. Those concepts, which are recommended by faculty teaching the courses, are transferred to discipline-specific real-world problems and a research project geared toward contributing to addressing issues specific to the Virginia Tech community. The Curie LLC addresses the first-year transition by providing academic mentoring by major and programming geared toward academic success, professional development, and engagement in a community of like-minded learners. The community allows for the development of leadership programming and a pathway for students to positively influence the academic outcomes of their peers while gaining a deeper understanding of their own commitment to their majors, their communities, and their career goals.


Normalized learning gains in the SBP average 59 percentage points, showing short-term success in improving math learning. Additionally, students reported a belief that the program provided experiences that improved their confidence in feeling prepared to handle their first year at university. For the 2012 cohorts, three year retention in STEM majors is 73% for the SBP and 87% for the Curie LLC. As data is evaluated from each subsequent cohort, the trends suggest that individuals who start in the SBP and transition to the Curie LLC benefit from staying in an environment where academic success, professional development, and social development are major areas of focus.

Broader Impacts

Together, SBP and Curie LLC, which are models that can be replicated for a variety of majors, provide an adaptive, socially supportive, peer-focused learning environment where students exhibit a propensity to stay in major at a high rate.

Unexpected Challenges

Program development and assessment has been a challenge. The design for the programs have seen drastic changes over the last 4 years as the proper approach was developed. This has also translated to changes in the assessment process due to changes in artifacts collected and learning outcomes for the participants.


Amelink, C., Seimetz, C.N., Watford, B., Cuadrado-Medina, J.A., Folgar-Lopez, J.C., Lewis, S.N. (2014) Measuring Innovative Thinking Skills in Innovation Challenge Activities. 121st ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition. Conference Proceedings Paper ID#10437, June 15-18, 2014, Indianapolis, IN.