published February 24, 2010

Learn about the Merit-Based Immersion Project for Students and Teachers (MIST)

The Merit Immersion for Students and Teachers (MIST) initiative focuses on recruiting and retaining students in biology, chemistry, and mathematics at the University of Illinois. Funded by a National Science Foundation STEP grant, MIST is an expansion of the current Merit Program for Emerging Scholars in the Departments of Chemistry and Mathematics and the School of Integrative Biology.

The main goals of the project are to:

- Broaden the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) student base to include undergraduate students who have not yet declared their major at the University of Illinois.

- Train current and future teachers at the high school and college levels to implement their own Merit-style Programs at their home institutions.

- Develop readily accessible online resources for students and professionals.

Background and Context

Based on the small group models proposed by Uri Treisman, the Merit-style of teaching consists of a trained Merit instructor providing challenging problem sets or other activities that stimulate student-student interactions. The instructor provides feedback and encourages interaction and discussion as the students work collaboratively in small groups. The Merit Program targets students with declared STEM majors who have high potential and are members of underrepresented STEM groups, such as ethnic minorities and women. The program also targets students from small high schools. Because of the NSF STEP grant, the MIST initiative expanded the Merit Program to students who have not yet declared a major.

The Merit Program is not a remedial program, as invitations are only extended to students who have high academic potential. One of our main goals in the Merit Program is to develop and engage a community of scholars among the Merit students. The Merit students work together to solve difficult course problems, develop friendships based on common academic interests, and inspire and motivate each other to maintain a high level of commitment to excellence. Learning in the Merit Program is not a passive activity in which students absorb facts from a teacher, but rather students augment their knowledge and skills through active participation in a reciprocal teaching and learning process. In order to "think like a chemist, mathematician, or biologist", students must learn to solve complex problems by understanding the fundamental concepts, not simply using algorithms to get correct answers.

Using a quasi-experimental, non-equivalent comparison group design, evaluation findings have suggested that all Merit students, regardless of their declared status, are not only participating in more STEM classes and accruing more credit hours, but they are also performing significantly better academically with higher GPAs than the non-Merit students. In STEM courses, undeclared MIST students' GPAs were 2.99 versus 2.76, while declared Merit students' GPAs were 3.07 versus 2.63. Similar findings of statistically significant differences in STEM course GPAs between Merit and non-Merit students were also found when data were disaggregated by the ethnic groups and gender.

In addition, when students rated the amount they had learned from the chemistry, integrative biology, and mathematics courses themselves sans the Merit Program versus the course with the Merit Program, data for all of the programs in both fall and spring revealed significant differences (p < .05) favoring the learning means of students in the course with the Merit Program. One student summarized the difference of the Merit Program like this: "Merit has increased my confidence to ask questions and explain concepts to others. It has built friendships and taught me problem-solving strategies which have been very beneficial in solving exam problems."

Another part of the expansion project through MIST involves disseminating the Merit teaching method to high school and community college teachers through summer workshops. After the inaugural summer teacher workshop, a majority (88.9%) of the teachers reported in the follow-up survey that they had changed the instructional strategies that they use in class, with 72.2% citing their participation in the workshop as a catalyst for these pedagogical adjustments. Moreover, as a result of taking the workshop, significant increases (p < .05) were made to teacher content knowledge on pre- and post-assessments, particularly in the areas of mathematics and biology.

More information on the MIST Project can be found here.