Spotlight on Innovation: How Hampton University Plans to Increase STEM Retention and Completion through Course Redesign and Engagement

Undergraduate Research: Image of Beakers in a Lab

How do you increase the number of underrepresented minority students attaining STEM degrees? Hampton University has a holistic approach.


The US Department of Education has awarded multi-million dollar “First in the World” grants to 24 colleges and universities 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.

Hampton University has set a specific goal of increasing the number of underrepresented minority students who graduate with STEM degrees, and Hampton is looking to address several obstacles to degree completion for minority students, including access, affordability, and engagement.

Hampton intends use its $3.5 million First in the World grant to identify students who have declared a STEM major and engage them with a number of activities designed to boost success and completion. The project includes partnerships with several other organizations to facilitate internships and other opportunities for STEM majors.

To learn more, we reached out to Dr. Ira Walker, project director of the grant and associate professor in mathematics, who told us the project will address these five primary objectives:

  • Increasing the completion rate of students in STEM programs
  • Improving the retention rate of students in STEM programs through a variety of pedagogical strategies and engagement tools
  • Increasing affordability of STEM education for students
  • Increasing the number of entering students who enroll in STEM programs
  • Improving the overall academic performance of students in STEM programs

Innovating Content Delivery to Make STEM Relevant for Students

One key initiative is to change the way that certain math courses are structured and taught at Hampton. The project intends to follow a 3-1-1 model for content delivery in five gateway courses: Precalculus 1, Precalculus 2, Calculus, Calculus 1, and Calculus 2:

  • 3 – First 3 weeks: The instructors will use a flipped classroom approach to encourage active learning. Students will prepare for class by using the lectures from Khan Academy during the first three weeks.
  • 1 – During the fourth week of each course, students will transition to learning software — either Microsoft Excel or MATLAB, depending on the course — that can help them implement what they are learning.
  • 1 – The fifth week will consist of project-based learning to help students see the real-life relevance of the skills they are learning.

“One of the complaints a lot of us get is that students say, ‘Why do we take this math course if there’s no relevance to what I do in my real life?’ We try and refute that by having a number of projects available to students that cut across all the different STEM disciplines — chemistry, math, physics, engineering, etc. — so they are actually engaged.”
Ira Walker, Hampton University

Students will be able to choose from an array of projects that encompass other disciplines and will work in groups to enact and reinforce what they learn, in ways that better prepare them for careers as future scientists and engineers.

Hampton University began implementing this course redesign in Spring 2015. They will use the interventions in all five courses, but for reporting purposes, they will examine the data from PreCalculus I with special rigor. The grant will also support professional development to prepare and support faculty for this new approach, particularly regarding the software needed for the classes.

“If you look at the way math is being taught here now, this represents a pretty large departure from the way things were formerly done,” Walker concludes.

Engaging Students Beyond the Classroom

What happens outside the classroom is also critically important for engaging students, and Hampton University is undertaking a number of activities to engage current STEM students and to support incoming students.

One new addition is a living-learning community for STEM students, who will all be housed in the same dormitory and encouraged to work together outside the classroom. The dorms will include computers and other technology integration, and will also feature a number of guest speakers who have careers in engineering or science, and who can talk with the students about how what they learn applies to future career pathways and problem-solving.

Another addition will be the Math Emporium, which will provide a large common space for students to work collaboratively and exchange ideas. Students will have access to computers, printers, and an office for math tutoring staffed by a math professor. Plans also call for the space to include whiteboards and areas for group learning.

Walker explains that the Math Emporium will be an evolution beyond the traditional math tutoring lab, with space and resources calculated to encourage and empower collaborative learning. “When they get out into the real world, they’re not going to be operating in silos. They’re going to be working with other people,” Walker points out.

Other strategies to attract, engage, and retain students include:

  • Peer mentoring, with upperclassmen supporting freshman and sophomore STEM students. Walker remarks that often, peers can do much more to support retention than professors can.
  • Establishing a five-week summer bridge program in Summer 2015 for the incoming Fall 2015 freshmen. The bridge program will review math skills to help make sure that students are able to begin their fall math courses well prepared. The program will also feature guest speakers and other elements from the STEM living-learning community.
  • STEM advisors in each of the seven STEM departments: biology, chemistry, computer science/computer information systems, engineering, marine and environmental science, mathematics, and physics. Students will each be assigned an advisor who will be involved in informing students about internships and encouraging them to be more involved in their education.
  • Keeping education affordable by delivering content primarily though online resources so that students will not be required to purchase textbooks.

Keys to Success

Working with the right people is critical to the success of the program. Hampton faculty involved in the project meet weekly to discuss what they’re doing and ensure they’re doing what they outlined initially in the proposal.

Also crucial to the program’s success are the partnerships that Hampton will establish, both with other academic institutions and with the private sector. Partners will provide support in a number of ways, from offering internship and employment opportunities to Hampton’s STEM students to hosting lecture series on STEM topics and providing other experiences to get students excited about STEM. Partners already identified include:

  • Northwestern University
  • Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering
  • Accenture
  • Achievable Dream Academies (Newport News, VA)
  • From One Hand to Another Foundation (Virginia Beach, VA)

Why You Should Watch this Project

Hampton’s goal is to serve 1,056 students beginning with the Fall 2014 cohort of students with declared STEM majors. They anticipate an increase in college persistence and success rates for underrepresented, underprepared and low-income STEM students. Walker notes that Hampton’s success in this project will also result in increased earning potential for those students and a higher graduation rate for STEM-qualified, underrepresented students.

At AI, we are especially interested to see what impact the Math Emporium and 3-1-1 model have, and will be eagerly watching their results.