Improving STEM Success for Second-Year Students

August 29, 2017

In a special issue of CBE-Life Sciences Education, “Broadening Participation in the Life Sciences,” faculty and staff shared their research on students' experiences with second-year science curricula and the techniques they used to improve second-year-student achievement.

The article details ways in which Grinnell College's Science Division, with the support of a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, has helped science students navigate their second year of college.

Of particular note is the success of faculty in the biology and chemistry departments who worked together to dramatically improve student success.

During their second year, students often enroll in a molecular biology course and an organic chemistry course in the same semester. Their professors worked together to coordinate their courses and implemented materials and common quiz questions to help students understand core concepts that connect the two disciplines.

Prior to the changes to the science division’s programming and curricula, faculty members had observed that students from backgrounds underrepresented in the sciences (including first-generation students and domestic students of color) were less likely than majority students to complete these courses with a passing grade. After the changes were implemented, this achievement gap was largely eliminated.

The study’s authors are Grinnell professors Leslie Gregg-Jolly, biology; Jim Swartz, chemistry; David Lopatto, psychology, who is also the director for the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment (CTLA); along with Joyce Stern, Academic Advising; Narren Brown, formerly of CTLA; and Ellen Iverson of Carleton College’s Science Education Resource Center.

During their second year, the study’s authors say, “Students are asking big questions and feeling the weight of making significant life and career decisions. These stages have to do with both personal relationships and academic choices.”

Grinnell implemented a range of support strategies targeted towards students at this phase of their college career, including:

  • targeted employment opportunities,
  • a second-year science student retreat,
  • learning and advising support resources, and
  • department-specific activities.

These initiatives complemented already strong advising and resources in the sciences, such as academic peer mentoring embedded in most of the 100-level and many 200-level classes across the sciences and mathematics departments as well as other support for underrepresented groups like the Grinnell Science Project.

Some examples of the support strategies include:

  • Faculty provided more direct experience inside and outside the classroom with common professional practices — such as working in diverse teams, working on a community-service–based project, designing an experiment, or analyzing data — as well as formal and informal connections, such as departmental or course-based lunches, to help students feel part of the scientific community and help faculty understand the issues students are facing.
  • Students attended more off-campus conferences to present their research and make connections with the larger scientific community.
  • And faculty helped allay student fears by talking about the changes students were experiencing, like increased workloads and more challenging topics, and helping students realize that, when they feel “this is hard,” it is because it is hard, not because they can’t do it.

For the full article, see “Situating Second-Year Success: Understanding Second-Year STEM Experiences at a Liberal Arts College.”

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