To boost graduation rates of students in STEM disciplines, Cal Poly Pomona is addressing motivational and psychological impediments, improving classroom instruction and providing interventions to help students acclimate to the college environment.
The university’s comprehensive approach has been boosted by a $1.5 million grant for Hispanic-Serving Institutions from the National Science Foundation. The grant will fund a project called “Polytechnic for All: STEM Success via an Inclusive Institution,” or PASSION for short.
“This collaboration between three colleges will help us to understand student thinking and apply interventions that reduce achievement gaps,” said Associate Professor of biology and principal investigator Paul Beardsley. The colleges are: College of Science, College of Engineering, and the College of Letters, Arts & Social Sciences.
The six-year graduation rate for CPP engineering and science students is 74 percent, but just 55 percent for underrepresented minorities. In the United States, Hispanics make up 16 percent of the overall workforce but only six percent in STEM fields. At Cal Poly Pomona, about 43 percent of students are Latino, 37 percent of which study science or engineering.
PASSION will address the graduation gap through short-term interventions, faculty development, peer-led mentoring and tutoring, and new teaching methods in critical early courses. Faculty will analyze the results of their work and add to the body of research on STEM education.
The Psychology of Learning
There are four main goals for the project. The first will address motivational and other psychological aspects of student success. Classroom instruction in physics and introductory mathematics courses will emphasize the relevance of course material. In addition, interventions will focus on acclimation to the social environment.
Often in higher education (and STEM in particular), students can experience “imposter syndrome” — or feeling that they don’t belong.
“What’s amazing is you can make subtle changes to classroom culture and suddenly success rates increase,” Beardsley said.
Co-principal investigator and Assistant Professor of social psychology Viviane Seyranian will lead a series of research-based interventions and evaluate their effectiveness. Students will participate in different activities to improve their academics and their overall well-being.
“Research shows that success in academic settings is often tied to social, psychological and motivational factors,” Seyranian said.
Professional Development for Faculty
During class, faculty are mindful to meet the needs of every student, including strengths and weaknesses, according to Victoria Bhavsar, a co-Principal Investigator and director of the Faculty Center for Professional Development and eLearning team. It’s an approach known as “inclusive teaching,” which is central to the PASSION initiative.
“It’s been said that the zip code where you live determines your future, but education is one thing that can change that,” Bhavsar said.
Accordingly, Cal Poly Pomona is recognized as one of the nation’s best at helping students from low-income backgrounds find financial success after college. The university was ranked No. 6 in the nation for social mobility by CollegeNet.
Through PASSION, faculty in STEM disciplines can participate in workshops, monthly seminars, summer institutes and an online training in inclusive teaching. In addition, the university will establish two faculty learning communities to encourage collaboration and sharing of best practices for improving student success.
Peer to Peer Support
Angela Shih, chair of the mechanical engineering department and co-principal investigator, will implement the third goal: developing and evaluating technology-assisted supplemental instruction that is peer-based instruction with a technology component.
PASSION proposes using supplemental instructors (SI), who are highly qualified undergraduates who typically sit in the lecture course along with students. Shih has been piloting this initiative for an online course, with the help of MEP director Lily Gossage and Scott Chang, academic retention coordinator, allowing the SIs to provide supplemental instruction on the material.
The supplemental instruction will also be recorded and reviewed, providing two benefits. First, faculty can ensure material is being presented accurately and effectively. Second, the review sessions can reveal common areas where students need help. Additional peer instruction in those problem areas can then be posted online to help future students who may struggle with the same concepts.
“Our ultimate goal is to develop more self-directed learning,” Shih said. “Research shows that students want to go straight to the relevant material. In addition, many of our students work part-time jobs, which means they may not be able to meet with their peers for traditional supplemental instruction.”
Understanding Student Thinking
Arlo Caine, associate math professor and co-principal investigator, will implement the fourth goal, studying the use of calculus concept inventory questions in class. Faculty will show high-quality visual representations of calculus concepts, and students must use them to solve a problem.
After choosing what they think is the correct answer, students then discuss their choice with peers. It’s a method of learning that can reveal where they may have gone wrong.
“Students’ thinking becomes visible because everyone participates in answering the questions,” Caine said. “This creates an inclusive environment.”