Deborah Gross, Ellen Iverson, Gudrun Willett, Cathryn Manduca 2015-02-13 03:29:45
Two cohort programs are used to support students from groups underrepresented in STEM fields at Carleton College. These programs were designed to support three aspects of student development: students’ drive to succeed in STEM fields; students’ sense of belonging in their student cohorts, in the college, in the STEM departments at the college, and in STEM disciplines more broadly; and students’ learning in STEM courses (e.g., mentoring, advising, and research experiences). Interviews and questionnaires were used to understand more specifically the challenges our students face and the relationship between program elements and student success. This allowed us to identify several critical program elements, particularly building an inclusive learning community, structured mentoring and advising from faculty and peers, and research experiences coupled with exposure to broad examples of scientific research and scientific careers. Conducting program evaluation in the context of the theoretical framework allowed us to better understand how and why the program works, as well as to refine programming. As our nation focuses on the importance of preparing a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012), institutions of higher education are strengthening efforts to support all students in completing undergraduate degrees in their chosen field of study. Of special concern, many STEM fields struggle to attract and keep women, students of color, and students who are the first in their families to obtain a college education (Barr & Matsui, 2008; Matsui, Liu, & Kane, 2003; Seymour & Hewitt, 1997). Successful models for aiding diverse students as they complete STEM degrees are multifaceted, supporting not only the academic needs of students, but also their emotional, cultural, and resource needs (Jolly, Campbell, & Perlman, 2004; National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, 2011). We refer to this successful approach as the whole student model. There are many successful programs that take this approach, including the U.C. Berkeley Biology Scholars Program (Matsui et al., 2003), the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (Maton, Hrabowski, & Ozdemir, 2007; Maton, Hrabowski, & Schmitt, 2000), the Grinnell Science Program (Grinnell College, 2013), and others. Carleton College, a small, highly selective, private, residential liberal arts college, uses two programs to strengthen whole student support for students from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields (on the basis of race, ethnicity, and/or gender), students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, and students from underresourced high schools as they pursue STEM. The Focusing on Cultivating Scientists (FOCUS) program is integrated into the Carleton curriculum and works with students from their first day on campus. All students in the cohort take the required first-year seminar together, on a scientific topic, in their first term. Cohort members also attend a full-year colloquium throughout their first and second years at the college. Colloquium activities emphasize work that is broadly applicable to many STEM fields (Table 1) while connecting students with resources on campus that supports their growth into their potential fields of study. Opportunities to bring FOCUS students into contact with the culture and intellectual communities within the STEM departments are emphasized. To ensure that they can explore their disciplines on their preferred timeline, students are given priority registration for a STEM course of their choice in the winter and spring terms of their first year. The students are eligible for grant-funded work– study opportunities and can obtain funding to attend scientific conferences or related events. Students are recruited into the program prior to arrival on campus. FOCUS began in 2007, with the first cohort graduating in 2011. The Carleton Summer Science Fellows (CSSF) is a separate researchbased cohort to which students apply in the winter of their first or second year at Carleton. Students are funded for two summers of research, either at Carleton or off campus (e.g., through Research Experiences for Undergraduates programs). Within the past year, we added a creditbearing colloquium for these students in the terms before and after their research experience. In the colloquium, they explore the context of their research project. Although FOCUS and CSSF have overlap in their student target populations, CSSF is open to all students on campus. To date, 111 students have participated in the FOCUS and CSSF programs (100 in FOCUS and 25 in CSSF, with 14 participating in both). Of the 70 graduates and current students who have declared their majors, 60 declared STEM majors (86%). Only four program participants left the college prior to graduation. This article focuses on the use of a framework, interviews, and questionnaires to understand how and when our programming works. Using the literature and faculty experiences as a jumping-off point, we developed a theoretical framework to describe the relationship between perceived challenges and programming. We then explored the veracity of this framework using interviews and questionnaires and situated the experience of students within our cohort program in the broader context of students in research programs and in the college as a whole. The results allowed us to refine the programming to better suit our students’ needs and to make a case for expansion of programming. A rigorous quantitative evaluation of program impact was not our goal and would not have been possible given the small size of the cohorts. Rather, this article aims to illuminate the value of the use of a theoretical framework to guide the design, customization, and development of programs designed to broaden access to STEM disciplines. Supporting the whole student The design of the cohort programs at Carleton brings together the experience of our own faculty with design of successful programs at other institutions (Jolly et al., 2004; Matsui et al., 2003; Maton et al., 2000). As shown in Figure 1, our experience is that students will remain in science and math fields if they increase or retain their passion for math and science at Carleton, if they succeed in these majors, and if they feel a sense of belonging at Carleton in its math and science departments and in math and science disciplines overall. Our model customizes the ECC trilogy (engagement, capacity, and continuity; Jolly et al. 2004) for a residential academic learning community. In this environment, two key aspects of engagement (that which draws the learner to study) are the drive to learn and succeed in a specific subject area and a feeling of comfort in the learning community. Capacity (the knowledge that is necessary to advance) as well as continuity (a system that offers resources necessary for advancement) are fundamental aspects of the college environment. The challenge is to ensure that the students are empowered to capitalize on these affordances and that there are no gaps in service specific to the needs of a particular group. To better understand the accuracy of this model and the specific challenges facing our students, we interviewed 25 students from underrepresented minority (URM) groups in STEM, both within and beyond the cohort programs, shortly after developing the programs. Throughout the analysis, we used a constructivist grounded theory approach (Charmaz, 2000) in which we coded the transcribed interviews for themes and compared themes using an inductive process (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). We identified four major concerns that Carleton students face when entering and persisting in STEM majors. 1. Feeling isolated or as if they did not belong. Feelings of difference can inhibit students’ ability to establish support networks (Litzler & Samuelson, 2013). In half of the interviews, students described a reluctance to ask for help in class or during office hours. Students discussed the fear of being considered stupid or confirming stereotypes. They talked about the challenges of faculty wanting them to study in groups and their lack of comfort in groups. In interviews, approximately 25% of students described feeling excluded by peers and faculty. These students openly discussed situations in which they believed faculty or peers marginalized what they could contribute to the class on the basis of their race or ethnicity. The challenge of seeking help seemed closely connected with students’ comfort and sense of belonging in class and in the science community. The “out of place” feeling described is not confined to URM students. It was reported at statistically similar levels by all students doing summer research on campus in STEM (using the Undergraduate Research Student Self-Assessment; Hunter, Weston, Laursen, & Thiry, 2009), as well as by the larger Carleton community (results were independent of class year). This is clearly an institution-level issue, and solutions that address this feeling among cohort students should benefit all students. 2. Perception of being underprepared for college and/or STEM fields. Most of the students (19 of 25) interviewed described their worries about being underprepared for Carleton and/or STEM fields. They identified particular courses in the sciences and calculus as especially challenging. Students described their realization that their high school had not adequately prepared them for the academic challenges at Carleton. They also expressed a sense that they lacked foundational content knowledge that would help them succeed in introductory science courses. Finally, some worried that faculty and other students may assume—rightly or wrongly—that they were underprepared for Carleton on the basis of their racial, ethnic, or class identities. 3. Problems with time management and studying. Both cohort and noncohort students from similar backgrounds identified challenges with time management and studying, particularly in balancing coursework, co-curricular activities, work study, and social life, during interviews. They described the different ways they have adapted to study more effectively and efficiently. Both sets of students identified study groups as critical to their success in overcoming these challenges, although many cohort students described their lack of comfort with working in groups, adding to the challenge. 4. Need for mentoring and advising (peer and faculty). All students interviewed described the need for peer help, mentoring, and advising. Students reported challenges with selecting courses and understanding course sequences and with knowing whom to ask for help when balancing academic work and competing demands. The cohort programs provide structured, sustained access to both peer and faculty mentoring. The challenges described by students support the usefulness of our theoretical framework. Some challenges are easily identified with a particular part of the framework. For example, feeling isolated is closely related to not feeling as if one belongs in the campus community. However, the framework also illuminates how the challenges require all three aspects of support to be strong for success. Feeling underprepared detracts from a sense of belonging and may need to be addressed through academic support. Time management is a critical piece of academic support. Mentoring and advising are essential to providing academic support, as well as supporting a drive to succeed. Programming for student success By looking at our programming though the lens of both student challenges and the framework, we can make better sense of why students respond positively to the cohort programs. Next we look at three features of both programs: (a) cultivating trusting relationships within and beyond the cohort group; (b) structured mentoring and advising by both faculty and peers; and (c) engagement in research activities. We see that all of these activities, which are frequently reported as important aspects of the program within the evaluations, allow students to address challenges and address one or more aspects of our framework. Different students find different elements to be important as they enter the program with different strengths. For one, peer mentoring may be critical to accessing student academic support; for another, a research experience that supports the ability to envision the pathway forward is key. Cultivating trusting relationships, a sense of belonging, and more To support academic success at Carleton and entry into graduate programs or work in STEM fields, we aim to have each student feel that he or she belongs at Carleton within the math and science departments, as well as in the math and science professional community. To accomplish this, the FOCUS and CSSF programs cultivate trusting relationships between and among peers and faculty through mentorship, social activities, research activities, shared coursework, and pride in belonging to the program. Program leaders stress cohort cohesion to provide students with support networks. In both cohorts, this takes the form of credit-bearing colloquia (Table 1). The first-year FOCUS students take STEM classes together whenever practical so that they will have ready-made study partners. Interactions with faculty—on campus and off—are also designed with the idea that they will lessen students’ fears of asking faculty for help, as well as give them a view of what professionals in these fields do. Both cohort programs build communities of students drawn from across the STEM disciplines. This interdisciplinary approach adapts the successful cohort approach used within disciplines at research universities (e.g., Berkeley Biology Scholars Program; see Matsui et al., 2003, p. 118) to the small student body that is typical of private liberal arts colleges. By encouraging students to feel a sense of belonging across the range of STEM disciplines, each student’s pool of potential role models, peer and faculty mentors, and support is larger than it otherwise might have been. One second-year student, when asked on evaluations how the program was meeting its goals, replied: It helped me my freshman year to create a community of students that I could identify with and feel continual support throughout the rest of my time at Carleton. I was able to see these students in my science courses and not feel completely alone in the struggle to keep up with the rigorous Carleton atmosphere. The interdisciplinary cohorts also create a supportive environment for students through the process of selecting a major during the critical first two years (Carleton students do not declare a major until the end of their sophomore year). Providing students with a sense of community among their cohort, peer mentors, and STEM faculty is critical for them in overcoming any sense of isolation that could inhibit their academic success. The program shows success in creating this community over the students’ first year (Figure 2), as well as over the whole four years. Students in FOCUS and CSSF report, overall, feeling a sense of belonging in their cohorts and among STEM faculty. They reveal this in their sense of belonging and in their responses to indirect questions about how they perceive FOCUS’s success as a program and about their greater confidence in approaching faculty for help, their confidence in approaching other students for help, where they seek help on a difficult assignment, and the barriers they have faced (and hopefully overcome) in their STEM studies at Carleton. A third-year student, when asked “How well is the program connecting you to faculty?” responded: In my freshman and sophomore years [the program] played a pivotal role in connecting me with faculty in the biology and chemistry departments, and ultimately led me to discover a new passion for chemistry via the influential roles that my close relationships with the science faculty played. In addition to strengthening their sense of belonging, students reported in interviews that they rely on this community to obtain needed guidance from faculty and peers, to acquire strategies for time management, and to understand more accurately whether they are prepared and where to obtain help when they are not prepared. Addressing academic support through mentoring and advising Two of the challenges students report are directly related to support for academic performance: time management and feeling underprepared. The college provides a rich array of support for all students through the Academic Support Center, the Write Place, and the Math Skills Center, as well as through individual departments. Faculty have extensive office hours and are available to advise and mentor students, and students in this residential environment have abundant opportunities to work together on course work and to obtain informal advice from peers. However, it is clear from our investigation that students from URM groups are often not able to capitalize on these features of the Carleton experience. A design feature of the cohort programs, structured opportunities for enhanced mentoring and advising from both faculty and peers, addresses these challenges by scaffolding student use of campus resources. Faculty advisors also play a role in assisting students to capitalize on their time at Carleton. Cohort faculty advisors are students’ academic advisors for their first two years at Carleton, while also teaching the first-year and sophomore colloquium for a particular group of FOCUS students. Thus, the faculty mentor and the students have a sustained relationship over the first two years of the students’ college careers. The faculty advisor can structure individual and group discussions to coincide with known challenges faced by students (e.g., registration for the second-trimester courses) and plays an active role in guiding them to make productive decisions about their academic and nonacademic activities. To scaffold development and use of their peer community for academic support, the peer-mentoring program was introduced in the third year of the FOCUS program in response to student requests for more support about how to be successful in their STEM courses. Peer mentors, typically older program participants, are assigned for all introductory and midlevel STEM courses in which FOCUS students in all four academic years are enrolled. These mentors are a source of help with course work, advice on course selection, and in some cases emotional support, providing a second scaffold for making use of campus resources. FOCUS students identify with the mentors as people like themselves, gaining confidence that they too can be successful. When asked how the cohort impacted their experience, one secondyear FOCUS student responded, “I’m so glad to have the mentors who were able to understand and help me whenever I needed help. Most of my transformation and adapting [to Carleton] environment wouldn’t be successful if it weren’t for this program.” Since peer mentors were instituted, nearly all students reported in check-in surveys that they used the services and sought peer mentors’ help with either tutoring for exams, projects, and assignments or for course selection. FOCUS students cited study groups and peer mentors as strategies that have helped them set priorities, develop productive study schedules, and identify solutions before coursework becomes a crisis. The programmatic focus on developing a sense of belonging reduces barriers to seeking help and thus enhances support for students’ learning. In interviews, students attributed this to the cohort of peers and having a faculty advocate. Interviews with FOCUS students, compared with a matched set of noncohort students, indicated that their first source of support for academic work is other STEM students rather than friends in co-curricular groups. FOCUS students reported a major change in their success in finding study groups after the first year of programming. Although these data demonstrate that structured mentoring and advising are improving the ability of the cohort groups to make use of campus resources for academic support, feeling underprepared remains a challenge for students at Carleton. In a recent survey of cohort students in their junior and senior years, nearly half continued to report feeling underprepared for coursework. Although only 25% of the population of summer research students (juniors and seniors) reported feeling underprepared, the difference between the two groups is not statistically significant. Additional research is needed to investigate the source of these concerns and the relationship of these perceptions to academic success as an underpinning for design of new support structures. Drive to succeed in STEM: The role of research experiences A fundamental aspect of students’ drive to succeed is their ability to imagine their pathway forward as a scientist. When asked how the summer research experience helped them in preparing for a future career, students described how it has helped them envision their future career or research interests. One third-year CSSF student reported: “I feel more compelled to gain a career in biology. My summer research rejuvenated me and helped me gain insight into a possible career and what I should expect.” Both cohort programs work to enhance students’ views of their place in STEM fields by providing opportunities for interactions with scientists and mathematicians through field trips to other universities and visiting speakers. These experiences give students an understanding of possible career and research options and how scientific knowledge can be applied in the real world. Simultaneously, students in the CSSF program engage in authentic research experiences that allow students to work on larger projects and take more responsibility for their learning, a central aspect of developing a sense of belonging in the scientific community, confidence in preparation for a career in STEM, and a passion to continue (Thiry, Laursen, & Hunter, 2011). The combination of research experience and colloquium plays a major role in students decisions to continue first in the major and then into a career in STEM. In post-program surveys, 22 of the 25 CSSF students reported that research enhanced their interest in a particular aspect of the discipline, as well as their motivation to succeed in STEM courses. The FOCUS program integrates research experiences and civic engagement projects into the first- and second-year coursework. Three of the 2010 cohort of 12 students wrote that this experience in their first year at Carleton had the largest impact on their confidence to pursue a STEM major or career. One 2010 student wrote, “The first term FOCUS research project on air pollution (five family study), and looking at another scientist’s paper and doing further in-depth research [on it] challenged me and gave me more confidence.” Figure 3 shows differences in students’ confidence in their ability to do science following a research experience, a result we interpret as indicating that students no longer feel as poorly prepared to do science after their summer research experience. On the basis of this analysis, we understand that the cohort programs are positively impacting their members and supporting their completion of STEM majors because: 1. They create an initial community of STEM students in which participants feel they belong and can find advice that supports their academic success. 2. They ensure that students have adequate mentoring and advising from faculty and peers. This addresses challenges of being underprepared, time management and studying, and the self-identified need for mentoring and advising, while opening up opportunities to capitalize on academic support provided to all students. 3. They use research experiences to strengthen students’ sense of belonging in science and math departments and disciplines, while also enhancing their academic success and drive to succeed. Conclusions Three aspects of our programming— developing strong communities and relationships, mentoring and advising, and providing research opportunities— work together to support students in meeting the challenges that they identify: feeling isolated or as if they don’t belong; feeling underprepared; managing their time; and obtaining sufficient advice. These challenges placed in the context of the whole student model illuminated how our program addresses students’ drive to succeed in STEM, learning needs, and sense of belonging. In this context, we were able to make sense of student feedback about specific program elements and their overall experience. Pulling together students’ enthusiasm for the program and success in STEM majors with an understanding of how the program works paints a picture that makes sense to our faculty and administration. Strong communities address students’ needs to feel at home in the institution and in their discipline, but also open up access to other students for help; mentoring and advising not only build a sense of belonging, but also play a fundamental role in linking students to academic support and addressing their ability to be prepared; and research opportunities bring together academic growth and motivation to continue in the field while building self-confidence. We understand that each student has different needs and will draw on different aspects of the program, making all program elements fundamental. Carleton now has a goal of extending aspects of this programming to all students. The programs at Carleton illustrate the importance of a strong learning community, as well as one-on-one interactions among students and between students and faculty. These are the strengths of a residential liberal arts environment. Our analysis emphasizes the importance of scaffolding that brings all students, especially URM students, into this community and allows them to capitalize on not only the academic support available on campus, but also the emotional interactions that sustain learning. This support helps students make informed decisions about their majors on the basis of their knowledge and enjoyment of the fields. Carleton cohort programs address the need for every student to have this experience. Acknowledgments This work was supported by grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, S-STEM and LSAMP grants from the National Science Foundation, and Carleton College. The authors gratefully acknowledge our colleagues at Carleton involved in the design, implementation, and data collection efforts. We are indebted to participants from many institutions at workshops and conferences where these issues were discussed. The programs are sustained by the faculty; by the staff; and most important, by the students of Carleton College for whom this work is done.
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