How Jackson State University is Improving STEM for All Students

Research Grants: Image of an experiment at a robotics laboratory


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.

Jackson State University has a holistic plan for increasing their STEM retention and graduation rates by simultaneously improving teaching and learning in STEM disciplines and increasing STEM literacy among all students. The plan is to provide students from other disciplines with opportunities to participate in collaborative projects with STEM faculty and students. JSU has received a $2.98 million First in the World grant to support the project, which will impact 160 faculty members and 1,280 students from a variety of disciplines.

To learn more, we talked with Paul Tchounwou, associate dean of Graduate and International Programs in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology, and Richard Aló, dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology. Theirs is a unique approach, and colleagues at other colleges and universities may want to take a close look.

An Integrated STEM Experience – for All Students

STEM is really the core of innovation and forming the leaders of the 21st century, Tchounwou remarks, and JSU’s project, “Integrated STEM Experience for All,” seeks to engage all students with STEM. To be successful in increasing STEM graduation rates, he adds, institutions need to expand support for STEM to both students in STEM disciplines and also throughout the university. Key components of the project include:

  • Transforming gateway classes and enhancing teaching and learning strategies so students can be successful.
  • Transforming lab classes into discovery classes to engage students in research activities to improve critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Designing multidisciplinary ways to focus on research, innovation, education, and engagement.
  • Creating learning communities of STEM students and also liberal arts students, public education students, and students from other disciplines to do research on multidisciplinary projects.

Part of the project involves re-envisioning STEM teaching in order to better engage and retain STEM majors, Tchounwou explains. He and his colleagues intend to implement teaching strategies to make classes more interactive rather than lecture-based, especially in critical gateway courses and lab classes. Technology will help boost the effort. Because JSU also has an iPad initiative that provides iPads to all first-time freshmen, some faculty members have designed specific class plans that capitalize on the opportunities for real-time multimedia integration in the classroom, and the larger project will build on those strategies.

Putting Resources in Place for STEM Student Success

STEM students who find themselves struggling to keep up will receive additional support. Early warning systems are in place, and students can take advantage of tutoring offered by JSU’s Scholar Academy. The Scholar Academy’s objective is to take scholars — students with GPAs of 3.0 or more — and have them assist struggling students to move them into a competitive GPA range. The model is largely based on peer mentoring, which JSU has been doing for years.

Affinity research groups also support struggling students by matching a group of four or five students with a professor. In some cases, this may be a group of students with low confidence in their abilities. Tchounwou explains that by interacting and engaging with both professors and peers, these students are able to build the confidence they need to move more deeply into collaborative research.

Engaging the Larger Campus Community in STEM Research

To engage students in STEM and in research collaboration in all parts of the campus community, JSU is deploying interdisciplinary learning communities. The learning communities are designed to help students understand how research helps them develop tools to move forward in any discipline. For example, Tchounwou explains, a multidisciplinary learning community studying pesticides might look like this:

  • Chemistry students might analyze at the chemical structure of pesticides.
  • Biology students might study the effects of pesticides on plants and animals.
  • Public health students might evaluate the effect of pesticides on the health of those exposed to them.
  • Public policy majors might focus on current laws and issues involving pesticides.
  • Liberal arts students might address these issues from a cultural aspect; perhaps they will frame policies to educate those from different ethnic communities, or design outreach campaigns to deliver messages to a larger audience.
  • Education students might design appropriate health education programs.

Aló adds that he and his colleagues are also currently discussing how they can work with core courses to engage more students in collaborative research activities. The highest concentration of students who participate in undergraduate research will be from STEM disciplines, but by engaging students from all over campus, they hope to promote greater STEM literacy as well as strategic transformation throughout the institution, integrating STEM across the disciplines.

A third way that Aló and Tchounwou plan to engage the larger student body is through JSU’s “big data” program, which incorporates knowledge from a number of disciplines. JSU offers bachelor’s degrees in statistics and biomedical engineering, masters and doctoral programs in engineering and in computational and data-enabled science and engineering, and is in the process of implementing a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology. These programs allow students from various backgrounds to learn how to create knowledge from large amounts of data in any discipline.

Keys to Success

Shifting pedagogical approaches is key to this project, and Tchounwou notes that it will be critical to discuss with faculty the importance of implementing new interactive classroom strategies and ensure that faculty are equipped with effective and appropriate strategies for their courses. The first step will be shifting teaching modes in gateway and lab classes, and then scaling up.

Why You Should Watch This Project

Through these initiatives, JSU hopes to increase its six-year cohort retention (currently at 75%) by 50%. They expect to achieve this by by making courses more interactive and by offering more student research opportunities. They also hope to engage non-STEM students in that research. We look forward to seeing the results of this initiative! These are ambitious goals, and, if achieved, will help keep JSU’s students competitive in the workplace of the future. In particular, if the cross-campus engagement in STEM research is successful, it will provide a powerful case study for other institutions.