Improving Programs

Part of the InTeGrate University of Northern Colorado Program Model

Program Motivation

Our motivation for this program was to find new ways to recruit and retain a diverse student body in our geoscience programs by making explicit the societal relevance of course content. We also needed an introductory environmental science/sustainability course and introductory labs that employed research-based effective pedagogy. In previous years, it was apparent to us that we needed a strategic and comprehensive model to retain geoscience students through to graduation. Each year our geoscience and environmental science courses enroll about 1,100 students, representing almost 10% of UNC students. About 25% of UNC students identify as ethnic minorities (Hispanic, African American, Asian, Native American, or mixed). So, we hoped to find a way to reform our courses reach out to the ~275 ethnic minorities registered in our courses each year, as well as the larger population of women and first-generation college students. The number of underrepresented minorities (URM) in our major has been increasing steadily but in most of our emphasis areas is not comparable to institutional percentages. Recruitment and retention of URM students and women in the past may have suffered from lack of curricular relevance expected from our increasingly diverse pool of applicants. Our motivation for this program was to create an inclusive and supportive learning environment for all students through new curriculum and through training faculty to be aware of the needs and expectations of a diverse student population.

Program-Level Goals and Evidence

Goal 1: Enhance outreach efforts to local high schools and community colleges through presentations and field activity experiences to recruit additional students.

This project allowed us to establish connections with eight local high schools and community colleges. Through these eight institutions, we connected with 918 students. Of those students, 60 indicated interest in UNC in some fashion or other. We also ran four field trips in Colorado during the summer of 2016. About 54 participants in total attended the trips. Participants included high school students, community college students, University STEM majors from fields other than Environmental Science or Geoscience, K-12 teachers, professionals from our Dean's office, and students from underrepresented groups. When faculty went out to schools, they used presentations highlighting faculty and student research, and local industries and jobs that work on resources important to society (see examples of power points in file 111137 and file 111140). In addition, STEM/InTeGrate recruiting advertisements went out from the University of Northern Colorado public relations/marketing unit that further described the kind of applied science careers our majors have entered after graduation (see file 111143).

We implemented this program with the hope of increasing the number of admitted Earth Science majors and matching or exceeding University-wide diversity admits. We began our program in late fall of 2015, so at present, we have only one data point to demonstrate impact on our program. We are excited to report that in 2016, we doubled the number of students admitted to the Earth Science major from 30 incoming students in the fall of 2014 to 60 students in the fall of 2016. Getting those admitted students to actually matriculate is another challenge we are working on. The main strategy to improve our "yield" of admits to enrolled majors has been to carve up the list of all new admits among all our full-time faculty, and have the faculty PERSONALLY contact each and every student with encouraging next steps. This seems to make a difference in how students view our Department--and the faculty now accept that recruiting is becoming a part of our jobs. During 2016 we are seeing diversity of student majors increase in some of our emphasis areas, actually exceeding university diversity numbers. This is a very positive development in that diversity of the student body in STEM disciplines at this university typically has lagged behind overall university diversity. These recruitment efforts and results are critically important to both our Department and the University of Northern Colorado because of fiscal realities and strong desire to get top students here--and keep them here!

Goal 2: Enrich lower and upper division courses with curricular activities that emphasize societal relevance and sustainability

We developed a new introductory Environmental Earth Sciences course, offered for the first time in Fall 2016. This course emphasizes societally relevant applications of geoscience that we hope will recruit and retain diverse students. Faculty also produced five activities or labs for upper-division classes that emphasize societal relevance and sustainability. Finally, a Scientific Writing course has been implemented with a sustainability theme for research and writing.

All curricular interventions exhibited learning gains among students. Both content knowledge gains and increased student engagement have been reported. (Although, with only one implementation, it is difficult to measure the significance of this.)

Goal 3: Develop a model for supporting diverse geoscience students that includes faculty training in diversity awareness, development and support of student-centered teaching practices in the department, and the use of best practices in student advising.

The implementation of new student-centered teaching activities (described in Goal 2) not only establishes geoscience learning in a societally-relevant context, but also brings a multi-contextual framework into the classroom. This has been described by Chávez and Longerbeam in Teaching Across Cultural Strengths: A Guide to Balancing Integrated and Individuated Cultural Frameworks in College Teaching (2016). This may have an impact on promoting interest and retention, especially among students who are more familiar with cultures that value a multi-contextual framework.

The work on Building Diversity Awareness allowed STEM faculty and administrators an opportunity to discuss factors that promote retention of underrepresented minorities and women in science, and best practices in student advising.

We asked faculty to complete a short questionnaire at the end of the workshop on Building Diversity, and then a follow-up survey six weeks later. Faculty response immediately following the workshop was very positive. Many faculty cited the use of data as very helpful, and also commented favorably regarding the opportunities for discussion. If there was anything negative in the feedback, it was the fact that our discussion time was so limited. In that sense, if there is limited time for presenting such a workshop, it may be more fruitful to eliminate some of the data analysis in favor of discussion and brainstorming.

We also asked faculty how they would apply this workshop to their teaching. The following themes came up in responses:

  • Talking to students about their own perceptions of diversity on campus
  • Sharing examples of scientists from underrepresented groups in class
  • Reflecting on teaching content and presentation style (e.g., by including examples of impacts of earth sciences in communities of underrepresented groups)
  • Taking time to understand student background, and factors that promote success
Ongoing work in future years can investigate how these advising parctices affect student retention through to graduation. Of particular interest is how underrepresented groups respond to these practices.

Unexpected Outcomes

Outcome 1:

An unexpected outcome of this was the development of a formal transfer agreement between Laramie County Community College and UNC. Also, a second formal transfer agreement is under development with Western Nebraska Community Colleges that is modeled after the first one.

Long-term Impact and Next Steps

There are several long-term impacts of this work. We were able to establish connections with a number of high schools and community colleges across the Front Range who have invited us to return to talk to their students about our program. As pressure increases to recruit strong students to UNC across all disciplines, the Earth and Atmospheric Science Department is in a much stronger position now with these new connections. Maintaining these connections and continued recruitment efforts will be part of an annual effort to attract new students.

Faculty have invested considerable effort into the development of new curriculum and assessments, as well as a new course in Environmental Science. In all cases, students demonstrated positive learning gains from these activities. With these new activities embedded into courses, and the Environmental Science course in the catalog as an annual offering, faculty have motivation to continue working to using new curriculum and improving it further.

The professional development workshop focused on diversity awareness received a lot of positive feedback from faculty, and there were many who expressed desire to learn about and discuss this topic further in a group setting. It is clear that this is a topic that has been on everyone's mind, but individuals have had few outlets for discussion. We intend to hold similar workshops an an annual basis, open to a broader range of departments, updating with new university data as needed.