From STEM Pathways to STEM Highways

STEM Highways


The US Department of Education has awarded multi-million dollar “First in the World” grants to 18 colleges, universities, and organizations that are innovating to solve critical challenges with access, recruitment, retention, and student success. At AI, we have interviewed each of the recipients to learn more about the projects these institutions are pursuing, how their approaches are unique, and what other colleges and universities can learn from these new efforts.

2015 was the second year of the First in the World grants. You can read our interviews with the 24 institutions that received 2014 grants here.

In an effort to better engage and retain STEM students, California State University, Los Angeles is partnering with two other institutions to establish a STEM Education Consortium as a way to pool resources and improve STEM education.

Institutions in the STEM Education Consortium will use the $2.8 million First in the World grant to target three issues in STEM education:

  1. Implementing high-impact learning strategies with aligned assessments to improve student outcomes.
  2. Providing comprehensive student advising to address academic issues and to support students who are juggling multiple life demands and who may need non-academic support.
  3. Streamlining the ability for students to move between STEM disciplines and majors, with innovations such as establishing an integrated STEM bachelor’s degree.

We talked to James Rudd, Cal State LA professor of natural science and project director, to learn more about how these initiatives will open more STEM career pathways to students.

1. How the STEM Education Consortium Will Test High-Impact Learning Strategies

Everyone agrees on the importance of increasing STEM retention and graduation rates, but as yet, insufficient research has been done to determine the most effective approach or combination of approaches. “I think they all work to some extent, and the question is can we produce data that shows more generally why it works and how other people can adopt those strategies and have evidence to justify adoption of those strategies,” Rudd explains.

Do flipped classroom strategies target certain skills and knowledge more so than, for example, metacognitive strategies?”
James Rudd, California State University, Los Angeles

Now, the STEM Education Consortium, a group of three California four-year and two-year colleges, hope to test multiple strategies and produce a 5% increase in STEM course enrollment and a 5-10% increase in STEM retention and graduation rates for underrepresented minorities. The STEM Education Consortium hopes that by applying a research consortium approach with a focus on teaching in STEM courses, they will be able to significantly move the needle on STEM student success.

The consortium institutions will implement high-impact strategies and aligned assessments in introductory STEM courses. Each institution will have a different area of focus as the project rolls out:

  • Cal State LA will implement flipped classroom strategies
  • Pasadena City College will implement problem-based strategies
  • West Los Angeles College will implement metacognitive strategies

As each institution rolls out their project, they will also create a multi-institutional community in which faculty, staff, and students can collaborate on the approaches.

Assessment data will be shared between institutions to determine if there is a significant difference in learning that results from certain curricular strategies.

2. Supporting STEM with Comprehensive Student Advising

Many Cal State LA students also have family and work responsibilities. To help these students, the project includes expanded advising that will not only help students plan classes for the next term, but also extend to non-academic challenges like time management, financial aid, and career exploration. Advising will include:

  • Strategies, mentoring and encouragement to reach goals while meeting work and family responsibilities.
  • Helping students access additional services like financial aid, mental health counseling, and other services intended to address specific non-academic issues.
  • Providing information about STEM careers to guide students as they consider types of jobs, required preparation, financial benefits and day-to-day duties.

3. An Interdisciplinary STEM Major

The third critical element of the project is the development of an integrated STEM Bachelor of Science degree, which will make transitions between STEM disciplines more flexible.

Rudd uses the analogy of a highway to explain how an integrated STEM degree will work. Currently, students might start to major in a STEM discipline like biology, but then encounter difficulties and leave STEM completely. This issue affects both struggling students and those who are doing quite well with a high GPA, but who choose to move to a different field completely because their chosen STEM major isn’t serving their needs.

Instead of leaving STEM completely, students on the “STEM highway” can simply change lanes to a different STEM focus and continue pursuing a STEM-related career. “Maybe biology is not going to be for you, but maybe science teaching, bioengineering or a health science field might be more aligned with your career goals,” Rudd explains.

“We want to keep them on the STEM highway. We want to help them find another career path because obviously they have an interest in STEM. We want to show them you can just change lanes and continue toward a STEM career.”
James Rudd, Cal State LA

The integrated STEM degree also offers a great deal of flexibility for students who are generally interested in STEM but haven’t chosen a specific discipline. In addition, it holds great promise for addressing the importance of interdisciplinary preparation for careers.

“There’s a need to bridge across disciplines,” Rudd explains. Environmental science careers are very appealing to current students, for example, and an interdisciplinary degree that covers physical sciences and life sciences provides broad preparation that can allow them to pursue more specialized graduate work or to pursue a career in public policy. The university recently had a student who wanted to specialize in patent law in order to work for biotech or start-up companies, but he didn’t know what the science content of those companies might be. The student completed an interdisciplinary science degree in order to be prepared for all the different STEM fields, completed a law degree, and now is ready to work for any startup.

Keys to Success

Faculty follow-through will be critical to the project’s success, Rudd notes. “Faculty can get distracted, they can get overloaded and overburdened.” Although faculty will receive release time through the grant, he also plans to find ways to encourage and support faculty in continuing their efforts to implement the new strategies and assess their impact.

A co-director for assessment will coordinate assessment efforts at all three institutions and serve as a key resource. A lead faculty member and project directors at each campus will also function as direct resources for faculty.

Improving STEM on Your Campus

While the STEM Education Consortium weighs the impact of specific interventions on STEM retention and graduation rates, other institutions need to be asking questions about what they can do to support STEM education, as well.

Rudd recommends using these questions to open critical conversations at your institution:

  • Are some faculty teaching with an approach that limits student success in their courses? Are they using a “gatekeeper” approach, or are they adopting teaching strategies to maximize the success rate of students?
  • Are some faculty concentrating their professional efforts on students working in their research labs at the expense of the broader STEM student population?
  • How does the institution support faculty who are using teaching strategies that lead to broader student success?
  • How does the institution hire its STEM faculty, and what professional activities lead to faculty retention and promotion?
  • What connections are there between STEM faculty success and student success? To what extent are faculty rewarded in the promotion process for student success? Is student success defined and valued in the same way by the department and the institution?