Increasing Persistence of All Students in STEM

In order to recruit and enhance the persistence and success of all of our students in science and mathematics, Byrn Mawr College leverages aspects of three programs: the STEM Posse Program, the Q Project, and the Blended Learning Initiative.

The Posse Foundation is an organization that identifies high school students with extraordinary academic and leadership potential who may be overlooked by the traditional college selection process. The students are placed in supportive teams ("posses"), a practice that has been shown to increase the likelihood of college success. The college has hosted traditional posses since 2000, but since 2013, with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), has also hosted STEM Posses, comprising students who intend to major in science or math. In addition to the training and support provided by the Posse Foundation in their home cities, STEM Posse Scholars attend a pre-orientation immersion program at Bryn Mawr during the summer prior to their matriculation. This is followed by a number of supports and opportunities designed to promote success and persistence, including stipends for conducting research on-campus and competitive stipends for conducting research off-campus during the summer, and four years of mentorship (two years formal, two years informal) provided by a Bryn Mawr faculty member trained by the Posse Foundation.

One of the primary reasons that students of all kinds drop out of STEM majors is because they have difficulty with the requisite mathematics. To address this particular source of STEM attrition, our Q Project, supported by HHMI, sponsors two courses, Quan 10 and Quan 11, for students who intend to major in science but may need additional quantitative support. Quan 10 is an opt-in course for identified students involving faculty from the various science departments, using examples from their respective disciplines to provide context for the math. Having the same faculty who teach introductory science courses contribute to Quan 10, using practical examples from science disciplines, has helped to change student perception of the course from a remedial intervention to a real advantage for students interested in science. Quan 11 is another opt-in course involving faculty that is specifically geared toward preparing first-year STEM students for calculus.

In conjunction with HHMI-supported activities, Bryn Mawr has additionally addressed quantitative and computational deficiencies among our students through the Blended Learning in the Liberal Arts Initiative. Early HHMI grants allowed Bryn Mawr to pioneer the adoption of the Internet as a teaching resource and the inclusion of computer applications into science and mathematics courses, at a time when the "World Wide Web" was still in the early stages of development. The current initiative took root in 2011, when Bryn Mawr embarked on an exploration of how a combination of online and in-class instruction could be used to improve student learning outcomes, while supporting the missions and cultures of small liberal arts colleges. Funded through EDUCAUSE's Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) Program, the initial project focused on improving performance in historically difficult, entry-level science and math courses by incorporating use of online open-source courseware modules (Open Educational Resources) into traditional classroom-based versions of these courses. Results for the experimental blended biology, chemistry and geology gateway courses were particularly strong: our goal was to raise the completion with merit rate for these three courses from 83% to 90%, and we surpassed that benchmark with an average of 93.5% overall and 95.1% for low-income students in these courses. As part of the NGLC project, Bryn Mawr shared its findings and grant-funded resources—including technical support—with thirty-nine other liberal-arts colleges who were partners on the grant. Blended learning at Bryn Mawr has since grown to include two major initiatives.

The TIDES: Teaching to Increase Diversity and Equity in STEM initiative, launched by American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) through a grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, is funding a Bryn Mawr project to develop a sequence of computational modules to foster physics majors' computational skills and deploy them as self-paced resources distributed across the curriculum. Bryn Mawr College is also the lead institution in a partnership with twelve liberal arts institutions on a $1.65M project funded by the First in the World (FITW) initiative of the Fund for Improving Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) at the U.S. Department of Education. Entitled Just-In-Time, Blended Mathematics Fundamentals to Improve STEM Completion, the overall goal of the project is to increase the number of underrepresented, first-generation and low-income students earning STEM degrees by developing a blended, "just-in-time" approach to math fundamentals coaching that provides students with the support they need while taking introductory science courses. Since science curricula generally follow prescribed course sequences, the traditional remedy of requiring "remedial" math courses to address deficits in math preparation risks increasing a science major's time to degree by delaying the entry point for starting the introductory sequence.