Few issues matter more to America’s vitality than continuing this nation’s tradition of leading advances in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, and the host of applications that can dramatically improve quality of life in America and around the world. Today, only 23 percent of college freshmen declare a STEM major. Moreover, just 40 percent of those who elect STEM majors freshman year receive a STEM degree within 6 years. Over the long term, the nation’s ability to address key challenges, like spurring advancements in health and medicine, the environment, space exploration, food production, and a host of other areas that can revitalize the American economy, depends on more students entering – and greater numbers graduating in – STEM fields.

A recent report issued by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology concluded that if the United States is to maintain its historic pre-eminence in the STEM fields and gain the social, economic, and national security benefits that come with such pre-eminence, we must produce approximately one million more workers in those fields over the next decade than we are on track now to turn out.

To that end, the report suggested that being able to reduce attrition in STEM programs by 10 percentage points — so that half of freshmen who enter college with the intention of majoring in one of those fields complete college with a STEM degree — would produce three-quarters of the one million additional graduates needed within a decade.

So what can our colleges and universities do to reduce attrition? A lot is already known about why students drop out of STEM studies. Among the leading reasons are uninspiring introductory courses, difficulty with the required math because of a lack of adequate preparation, and an academic culture that is sometimes not welcoming. This is particularly true with respect to women and minorities, who constitute 70 percent of college students but earn only 45 percent of STEM degrees.

On the basis of that knowledge, the URC institutions have developed their own programs that strive to retain all students entering the STEM fields, and particularly underrepresented students.

Michigan State University’s Diversity Programs Office Scholars Program (DPO-SP)

MSU’s College of Engineering Diversity Programs Office Scholars Program (DPO-SP) provides structure for students during their first two years, which are the most critical of a college student’s experience. DPO-SP is a two-year retention initiative that provides a structured, systemic method of retaining students in the College of Engineering while having a particular focus on underrepresented minority and women students.

Participation in DPO-SP is mandatory to ensure a high level of commitment from both students and faculty engaged with the program and combat declining enrollment and graduation rates in STEM fields. Additional requirements include participation in the Engineering and Science Summer Academy (ESSA), enrollment in specified math and engineering courses, bi-weekly meetings with DPO staff, and participation in a mentoring program that matches each incoming student with a third- or fourth-year engineering student. This early focus has allowed MSU to attain 78 percent graduation rates among the DPO-SP cohorts.

The first part of the program, ESSA, is a six-week pre-freshman summer bridge program designed to help incoming freshmen make an easier transition from high school to college, positioning them to be academically successful once fall semester classes begin. The program targets those deemed most at-risk, admits about 20 students each summer, and provides information on support units and systems across campus and exposure to and academic skills in Mathematics, Chemistry and Writing — courses that are critical to the success of students in STEM majors. The selection criteria include a challenging interview process and several written assessments.

Quintin Shine, an applied engineering science major, was selected to be part of the program and went through it this past summer.

“The summer program was intense, but the academic classes that I took really helped prepare me and made my classes this semester a lot easier for me. Without it, I would really be struggling right now.”

Upon completion of this summer’s program, participants retook the math placement exam; 15 of the 17 students improved their scores, while 10 of the 17 moved up one class or more, giving them a jumpstart on their “time to degree.”

“Being able to move up one or two class levels in math really help especially for those of us who may not have the best finances.” Shine said.

The overall results for the program show that it’s achieving its goals. Students who participated in the program are being retained as engineering students as of their third semester at a higher percentage than those engineering students who did not participate in the program or those engineering students who began their college careers at similar levels of math readiness.

University of Michigan’s M-STEM Academy

Run by the Center for Engineering Diversity and Outreach (CEDO), Michigan-Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (M-STEM) aims to help promising high school students with diverse socio-economic, geographic, cultural, gender and ethnic backgrounds make the transition to college, and thereby excel in their education.

“We were concerned about diversity in our college of engineering and wanted to make sure that our students would be successful academically as well as develop a sense of multi-cultural competency, so we created the M-STEM academy,” explained M-STEM co-Administrative Director Dr. Cinda-Sue Davis. “These are students who have already been admitted to U-M so, by definition, they’re already high-achieving students, but we make sure that they’re going to do more than just okay — that they’re going to be really top-notch students, with high GPAs, and we provide them with lots of opportunities to work with other students, to work on student teams, and to do all the co-curricular things that are extremely important to a graduating engineer.”

The program takes in 60 students per year from very diverse backgrounds not only in terms of race and gender, but also in terms of first generation college students, socio-economic class, and students from very small high schools that may not have all the AP courses and resources that another school may have.

Approximately 30-40 percent are women, which is greater than the 27 percent represented overall in the college, and approximately two-thirds are historically underrepresented minority students.

April Yazzie, a second year cohort and now a senior majoring in aerospace engineering who came from a very small town in Arizona, jumped at the chance to be a part of M-STEM.

“I graduated from a very small high school and was a bit nervous to attend a large university,” Yazzie explained, “so I was excited to have the chance to participate in the program not just for the classes, but also to get used to a new area and college life. It was great being able to start school and know exactly how to get around campus and where to go for help.”

Creating relationships is another major goal of the program, according to Davis. Actively engaging in cross-cultural experiences and being comfortable discussing issues of diversity are two of the stated “characteristics of an M-STEM Scholar.”

“Recruiters have told us that one of the reasons they like Michigan Engineers is that not only are they good engineers, but they have a sense of multi-cultural competency,” said Davis, who is also the director for Women in Science and Engineering. “They can go into the global marketplace in a very easy transition and hit the ground running.”

To foster that “multi-cultural competency,” M-STEM students are encouraged to participate in student projects and study-abroad experiences. They have access to paid internships and research experiences after their first year in the program, and many of the students felt that really helped them establish themselves early in the process.

At the end of their freshman year, students participating in the program are offered a research opportunity on campus where they work in a lab 40 hours per week for ten weeks during the summer. “Because we bring in these corporations, our students are able to build good relations with them and are very often getting corporate internships following their freshman year,” Davis said.

Overall, between 80-90 percent of students following freshman year are doing something academic during the summer — either working in a research lab, or have a corporate internship or taking courses, which is also a high percentage for someone just having one year.

“After my freshman year I received my first internship offer from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and the following year I took a co-op with NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston,” Yazzie said. “If it weren’t for the professional development, academics and teamwork through M-STEM, this probably never would have happened.”

During their first and second years, the students are expected to maintain a 3.0 GPA in all their classes and are asked to re-take introductory classes if they receive a B- or lower. M-STEM students also have access to an academic coach, peer mentor, corporate mentoring and professional development workshops. After the two-year program ends, M-STEM students are asked to stay in touch with the program by attending regular “family meetings” and acting as mentors for new M-STEM students.

There are 257 students in the M-STEM program. Of the 47 M-STEM students who entered in the initial 2008 cohort, they expect that 37 (79%) will graduate from engineering and 40 (85%) will graduate from U-M. The first 12 students graduated in May with the others to follow in December or next May.

U-M expanded the program two years ago within the College of Literature, Science & the Arts by providing a similar program for biology students called M-BIO. And just two months ago, the university received a five-year, $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create the university-wide M-STEM Academies that will provide disciplinary sub-academies in engineering, the life sciences, the physical science, and mathematics.

As for Yazzie, she is a shining example for what the M-STEM program is designed to achieve. As a native American she has begun working with CEDO and reaching out to other native American high school students to educate them on the opportunities available to them through U-M and the STEM fields in addition to her working toward her life-long dream of becoming an astronaut.

“I think it’s important to give back and let others know there is opportunity, support and resources out there to help them achieve their dreams,” Yazzie said.

Wayne State University: Undergraduate research as a tool for student retention in the STEM fields

Participation in research is a proven way to enhance the quality of undergraduate education and encourage students to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Nationally, the numbers of undergraduate students participating in research has been relatively small and most efforts selectively engage upper level undergraduates.

With growing concerns about the declining number of students earning STEM degrees and the lack of diversity of the STEM workforce, there is increased emphasis on expanding research opportunities for undergraduate students, in particular those from underrepresented groups (i.e., students of color and women).

At Wayne State University, a group of undergraduate students is gaining extensive knowledge and laboratory skills by working with Dr. Marcis Jansons, assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

Jansons conducts automotive-related research in select areas of internal combustion at WSU’s Center for Automotive Research (CAR). Work is conducted in the CAR optical engine laboratory, a state-of-the-art facility devoted to the research of in-cylinder processes using optical diagnostics. Under Jansons’ direction, students have embarked on research on diesel engines, studying issues related to auto-ignition, cold-starting, emissions and control. Through the use of lasers and specialized imaging equipment such as spectrometers, intensified ultraviolet and high-speed cameras, students are investigating the combustion process under varied, yet controlled conditions. The ultimate goals of these efforts are to improve the performance, fuel economy and emissions of next-generation engines, while facilitating the use of alternate and renewable fuels.

One Wayne State student, Jinqiao Wang, is an example of the growing trend of undergraduate students from China now attending U.S. universities in significant numbers. He has been invited to present his work at a poster session highlighting undergraduate research at the November 2012 American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Congress in Houston.

“Having undergraduates involved in research places them in a competitive environment with Ph.D. students, and provides them with an experience they otherwise would not have had,” said Jansons. “Rather than go home and play video games, this lights a fire within them, ultimately sparking their interest in wanting to learn more. We are also giving them an opportunity to take their theoretical learning from the classroom and place it in to practice.” Jansons said that Ph.D. students benefit from having undergraduates in the laboratory. “Having the undergraduates in our laboratory gives our Ph.D. students the opportunity to be mentors. It’s a win-win situation with Ph.D. students benefiting by gaining additional teaching experience and providing undergraduates role models to guide them in their studies.”

Jansons said the undergraduate students’ research efforts in the Center for Automotive Research are paying off. In addition to the student that has been invited to present at the ASME conference in November, another has received a full-ride scholarship to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and also received one of five slots to participate in a prestigious Focus on Optical Engine Diagnostics summer program at Sandia National Laboratories’ Summer Institute — a program typically aimed at graduate students that allows them to spend time in a national laboratory and work with world-renowned researchers in the field.

“I know having undergraduates working in my lab is making a difference in their lives,” said Jansons. “They are gaining knowledge and hands-on experience that will impact their future careers and the world that we live in.”

Jansons was recognized for his efforts in giving undergraduates a taste of the life of a scientist and the research culture. He was honored with the Ralph R. Teetor Education Award during the SAE 2012 World Congress held in Detroit. The award, established in 1963, recognizes and honors exemplary young educators who are successfully preparing engineers to meet the challenges that face society. The award is named after former SAE president, Ralph R. Teetor, who firmly believed that engineering educators are the most effective link between engineering students and their future careers.