Jon Johnson calls it the moment “when reality hits.”
A professor of mathematics at Elmhurst College, Johnson has seen too many first-year students struggle in their first encounters with college math and science courses, and face the realization that academic success will require more work than they had imagined. Some give up, dropping their math or science majors for disciplines they think will be less difficult and abstract—or even worse, dropping out of college altogether.
Now, a grant of $448,875 from the National Science Foundation will allow Elmhurst to introduce a new program to improve retention of students in the so-called STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—and encourage student success. Building on existing departmental initiatives, the Keystone (Keys to Success Through Year One) Project will include new STEM-related first-year seminar courses, research-based January Term experiences, special STEMinars to introduce students to career options in STEM fields, and summer research opportunities.
“The jump from high school to college in math and science courses can be a big one, and some students are not prepared for the level of work they’ll have to do,” said Johnson, principal investigator on the project. “These programs are designed to help students make that transition and succeed in STEM-related majors.”
Building student interest in STEM fields has become a priority throughout higher education, with numerous studies in recent years pointing to “leaks” in the pipeline of students heading to graduate school and careers in those fields. Studies have shown that only about half of first-year students who say they intend to major in STEM fields actually graduate with degrees in those fields within six years. Many students who abandon STEM fields say they do so because the coursework is too difficult; experiences in the first year of college can be decisive.
“Students come in with dreams of being a doctor or a research scientist, but if they are not prepared to succeed, they can become demoralized,” said Merrilee Guenther, assistant professor of biology and a co-principal investigator on the project. “They need to know how to manage time, set goals and synthesize enormous amounts of information. Some figure it out on their own, but others never do. They end up changing majors or often leaving the College entirely. And these are students who could be successful ultimately."
Keystone aims to help such students navigate the challenges of their first year of college and beyond. By addressing the exodus of students from STEM fields, it aims to increase the number of graduates in biology, chemistry, computer science, exercise science, mathematics, physics and cognitive psychology at Elmhurst by 36 percent. The project is intended to offer a model of successful interventions that could be adopted by other institutions. The project will begin in full with the start of the academic year in August 2013 and run for five years.
Elements of the new program address some of the most often cited reasons for students leaving STEM-related majors. For example, more than a quarter who drop such majors say they believe they will find better job prospects in other fields. The new spring STEMinars, focused on career options, graduate-school preparation and guest presentations from professionals working in STEM fields, will introduce students to some of the ways they can apply their interest in math and science to the world of work.
The project will also increase opportunities for students to engage in research, a strategy the investigators believe will drive interest in and excitement about science- and math-related majors. In addition to project- and research-based January Term courses, the project is creating new summer research experiences that will introduce students, early in their college careers, to the responsibilities and rewards of collaborative investigations.
“When you do research, you learn to take ownership of your own education,” Guenther said. “You do a lot of maturing and you get excited about what you’re learning.”
Johnson said that he hopes to enroll more than 100 first-year students in the Keystone Project each year.
The Keystone Project is one of several College initiatives that seek to prepare students for success in science, math and related fields. Another, the Summer Academy in Math and Science, gives high school students from underrepresented groups a running start on college work.
For more information, see The Keystone Project.