Using Early Introduction to Undergraduate Research to Recruit, Retain, and Graduate More STEM Majors
Undergraduate research opportunities have well-documented benefits (Seymour 2004, Hunter 2007, Russell 2007), especially for underrepresented groups (Gregerman, 1999). Some benefits, identified by Russell, Hancock, and McCullough in their study of 15,000 faculty and students survey respondents, were increased confidence, understanding, and awareness, as well as being more likely to obtain an advanced degree (Russell, 2007). ﾓMajor switchingﾔ happens, to some extent, in virtually every area of study, but it is particularly pervasive and problematic in the sciences, especially for underrepresented groups (Hyde, 2007). Early introduction to research has been shown to increase retention of underrepresented students in STEM fields in an undergraduate liberal arts college environment (Shields, 2010).
The goal for our project is to create a program that will increase the number of undergraduate students, particularly underrepresented students, who graduate in the sciences by taking advantage of a mentor education model. The program is designed to prepare students for long-term careers in science, either in academia or in industry, through an early introduction to research.
This plan is based on best practices established by the PI in a previously awarded and highly successful STEP program at Hamilton College (Shields, 2010). Five strong and diverse (identified by race, socio-economic status, gender, and first generation) cohorts of up to 20 students each will be recruited and participate in activities designed to help them transition to college, introduce them to research, and help to establish close working relationships with STEM faculty and peer mentors. In particular, all participants will experience a 5-week summer research experience on campus with a mentor and team prior to matriculation and a 10-week summer research in a subsequent summer. There are team building experiences and academic success workshops during the first summer, with an expectation that students present a poster at a research symposium at the end of the first 5-week experience.
After completing our second year of the project, our data show that the rate of persistence (measured by retention in a STEM major) across the two cohorts is significantly higher than the overall Bucknell STEM majors. The 2014 cohort finishing their sophomore year has a 93% vs. 85% retention rate in a STEM major. The 2015 cohort completing their first-year has a 100% vs. 94% retention rate in a STEM major.
In terms of academic performance, our data show that both cohorts (2014/2015) had equal to or slightly higher median cumulative and major GPA scores than the comparison non-scholar STEM students in most semesters, with no statistically significant difference between these two groups in their SAT/ACT. The 2014 cohort had higher median GPA scores in both cumulative and major GPA in every semester compared to all STEM majors. The 2015 cohort had slightly lower cumulative GPA but exactly equivalent major GPA as all STEM students in the Fall 2015.
In addition to the STEM Scholar participants benefitting from participating in this project, we are seeing a positive shift in perception among our faculty toward underrepresented students ability to be successful in the STEM fields, as well as a willingness to engage students in their research labs early in their undergraduate experience.
We were surprised by the low numbers of applicants for this program during its first year. During the second year, we increased the advertisement by sending both paper and email invitations to qualified prospective students and also hosted tables at admissions fairs with current STEM Scholars. The students reaching out to other students seemed to help dramatically increase the applicants for the second year.
Shields, G.C., Hewitt, G., and North, L., ﾓUsing Pre-College Research to Promote
Student Success and Increase the Number of Science Majorsﾔ, CUR Quarterly,
31 (1), 2010, 43.