Spotlight on Innovation: Northeastern Adds Learning Laboratory to Increase STEM Retention

Image of microscopes in an academic lab


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.

With job growth in STEM fields predicted to increase at three times the rates of other fields of study, Northeastern University (Boston, MA) plans to expand support for students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in STEM disciplines. At Academic Impressions, we’re especially intrigued by the learning laboratory component of this FITW-funded project because, if successful, the laboratory will help identify models for academic intervention that increase STEM graduation rates for nontraditional students. Northeastern is especially focused on finding low-cost ways to deliver STEM education to students online or via blended courses, while providing the academic support that will make the most significant impact. Here’s a first look at their initiative.

Building on Past Success

Building on the success of its current Fast Track program, Northeastern plans to use its $3.9 million grant to enroll 200 to 250 community college transfer students in STEM programs while testing various components of academic support for them over the course of their degree. The Fast Track program helps nontraditional students transferring in with some college credit to complete their degree in 18 months. The program features:

  • Robust career advising embedded in the program, with everything in the program built with an eye on where students are headed
  • Co-op and experiential project-based work to give students real-world experience and skills

The co-op is a signature Northeastern program in which full-time students engage in experiential, project-based learning that provides real-world experience. Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies also offers online experiential learning to imitate these experiences for part-time students, who can also integrate the project-based work into their current workplace.

The Lowell Institute School will build on the successful work that Northeastern has done with Fast Track and online experiential learning and add a learning laboratory where faculty and professionals from industry can collaborate in testing evidence-based models for improving retention and student success for students in STEM disciplines, with a particular focus on under-represented students.

The Lowell Institute Innovation Incubator

This laboratory is the Lowell Institute Innovation Incubator. “What excites me most about this initiative is we’ve got somewhat of a blank slate,” explains Kevin Bell, College of Professional Studies Executive Director of Curriculum Development and Deployment. The FITW grant money allows them to look at all aspects of the educational experience, working with people who will be completely new and can be completely focused on this project.

The Innovation Incubator will test interventions involving gamification, as well as adaptive and experiential learning, with the goal of increasing retention, degree completion and lowering the cost of delivery to non-traditional students who have some college experience and want to pursue a bachelor’s degree. The incubator will pay special attention to the intrinsic motivations of students from underserved communities who are taking online courses. Successful interventions will be embedded in the curriculum and expanded to other courses.

Keys to Success

In reaching out to both enroll and better support nontraditional students, one key challenge facing Northeastern faces is aligning this focus on nontraditional students with its reputation as a highly selective private university.

“How do we explain why is Northeastern doing this?” Bell says. “Northeastern has risen rapidly in the rankings as a national, high-profile elite institution and now we’re saying there’s this Lowell thing that’s driven and led by Northeastern but it’s really looking to engage a community that has not to many people been an obvious focus.” And yet, the project speaks to one of Northeastern’s long-standing core values: “providing opportunities to those who strive to overcome disadvantages and show great promise for future success.”

A second challenge is keeping students engaged and focused amidst the many other obstacles adult learners face. “You’re talking about students who have a thousand reasons to not complete, and we’re giving them one to complete which is, ‘This is good for you, it will help you in your career, stay with us,'” Bell explains. The ability to test, fine tune, and retest multiple projects involving student engagement and interventions is why the Innovation Incubator will be so critical.

Bell’s recent research has included collaboration with practitioners piloting serious gaming initiatives, including hero’s journeys where the student places her- or himself at the center of a narrative filled with mnemonic devices. Elements such as appropriate level of challenge, immediate corrective feedback and serendipitous “awards” or simply praising recognition, are all elements that cross over from good (traditional) instruction that can be accentuated in the online environment.

Why You Should Watch this Project

The Lowell Institute’s learning laboratory is a uniquely focused research initiative to identify those interventions that increase student success while lowering the cost of course delivery. We’ll be watching closely and are excited to see what they learn about engaging working adults pursing STEM degrees in online and hybrid environments.