Increasing Persistence of All Students in STEM

Carleton College supports two cohorts geared directly to supporting students from underrepresented backgrounds in STEM fields:

  1. FOCUS (Focusing on Cultivating Scientists): a curriculum-based cohort program that includes ~sixteen first-year students who work together in three credit-bearing courses through their first and second year at Carleton. Students are involved in the cohort for their entire time at Carleton, regardless of their declaration of major. The first FOCUS cohort started in fall 2007 and graduated in June 2011.
  2. Summer Science Fellows (SSF): a research-based cohort program that adds four students per year and supports them with two summers of research stipend, with research carried out at Carleton or at other institutions. Students are also involved in an academic-credit bearing colloquium in the academic terms prior to and directly after their summer research. The first SSF cohort was recruited in 2008.

Both cohorts are designed to support students from a wide variety of backgrounds as they gain experience in STEM. All of our work is carried out in the context of a framework for student development that is modified from the ECC Trilogy model (Jolly, E. J., Campbell, P. B., & Perlman, L. (2004). Engagement, capacity, and continuity: A trilogy forstudent success. Retrieved from, shown in this figure.

Recruitment and selection of students, the contents of the credit-bearing courses, student advising, the types of evaluation which we carry out, and other aspects of the programs, are described below.

Recruitment and Selection of Students:

FOCUS: The program director (D. Gross) coordinates the selection committee, which includes faculty involved in FOCUS. The Office of Admissions identifies accepted students from high schools known to be under-resourced in science or math and known to serve students traditionally underrepresented in STEM, as well as individuals admissions staff think would benefit from participation in FOCUS, in the spring prior to their first year. Current FOCUS students contact them by phone and email to provide them with information about the FOCUS program and Carleton in general. Students from this group who matriculate at Carleton are given priority for placement in FOCUS. In addition, all matriculating first-year students are given the opportunity to apply to participate in FOCUS through their application for their required Argument & Inquiry seminar (one of which exclusively contains the members of the FOCUS cohort). All students who are interested in participating in FOCUS must answer three questions:
  • Briefly describe your interests and goals in the sciences/mathematics:
  • The goal of FOCUS is to provide support for and broaden participation of historically underrepresented groups (based on gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, and disabilities) in the sciences. How do you see yourself as broadening participation?
  • How do you anticipate benefiting from participation in the FOCUS cohort?

A team including the program director and other faculty who have mentored FOCUS cohorts gather to read the students' responses and their applications to the college, and to assemble a strong cohort. This process is coordinated with the assignment of all incoming first-year students into their A&I seminars, and FOCUS gets "first dibs" on cohort members. The cohort contains between fifteen and sixteen students per year.

Summer Science Fellows: Students in their first or second year are invited to apply to be a member of the SSF cohort during early January. Signs are placed around campus, the FOCUS cohort is specifically targeted for applicants, and information about the cohort/application process is provided on the college webpage. Eligibility requirements are that students are 1) First- or second-year student; 2) must have completed at least one introductory science course with lab by the end of the first year. Students interested in CS/math/stats must have completed at least one course in those fields; 3) Interest in obtaining a PhD in a science/math field or exploring science/math as a potential career.

  • Describe any previous research opportunities you have had and/or participation in science related clubs/organizations/science fairs. Previous research experience is not a requirement.
  • What area of science (physics, chemistry, biomedical research, ecology/field research, computer science) are you interested in gaining research experience?
  • What are your career goals and research interests? How will participating in the Summer Science Fellows research program further your ambitions?
  • The goal of this fellowship is to broaden participation of historically underrepresented groups (including gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, and disabilities) in the sciences. How do you see yourself as broadening participation? Please be as candid as possible when answering this question.

The SSF program director selects cohort members based on answers to the questions above, consultation with a faculty member listed by the student as a reference, and available research opportunities (i.e. students need to be placed in a research group that is in reasonable alignment with their interests). Students are typically placed in research groups at Carleton College for their first summer of research, although in a few cases, students are placed in programs at the University of Minnesota or the Mayo Clinic, where we anticipate that they will be actively mentored. The cohort contains four to five new students per year.

We use a very expansive definition of diversity for these cohorts. Students tend to be from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM, in the first generation in their families to attend college, from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, from under-resourced high schools (identified by our admissions staff), or otherwise exhibiting extremely low confidence, coupled with high interest, in pursuing STEM. The cohorts are significantly more diverse than the campus as a whole.

Credit Bearing Courses for the Cohorts:

FOCUS: FOCUS students participate in three separate courses together:

  1. Argument & Inquiry Seminar: In their first term at Carleton, all students take an A&I seminar. From the Carleton webpage: "Argument and Inquiry (A&I) seminars are designed to provide students with an understanding of the meaning and value of a liberal arts education during their first months at Carleton. A&I courses explicitly introduce the ways that scholars ask questions, as well as find, use, and evaluate information effectively and ethically in constructing arguments. They give students opportunities for critical reading, thinking, discussion and college-level writing on a variety of topics and are designed to enhance students' abilities to collaborate effectively with their peers and professors." Courses are all taught by STEM faculty members and the entire seminar group is the FOCUS cohort. Recent seminars have included Science, Technology, and Public Policy (2007, 2013); Brain, Mind, and Behavior (2008, 2011); Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (2009); Air Pollution and Human Health (2010); Geology in the Field (2012); Powering the Future: Renewable Energy in Context (2014); and Explorations in Geometry (2015).
  2. FOCUS First-Year Colloquium: Throughout their first year, the FOCUS cohort takes a partial-credit colloquium (1/3 of a course credit per term, adding up to 1 course credit over the three terms of the Carleton academic year). The colloquium is lead by a tenured STEM faculty member who serves as the cohort mentor throughout their Carleton career. The faculty coordinator organizes events, publicizes opportunities (e.g., meetings with key visitors to campus, calls for applications to summer research positions), teaches the FOCUS colloquium, and serves as a mentor for each of the students. Assessment has demonstrated that the colloquium serves as one of the most valuable and innovative elements of the FOCUS program. In each term, the colloquium addresses one scientific topic (e.g., mathematical modeling of data sets and use of Excel; designing experiments and writing lab reports; and writing a resume and personal statement and learning about the pathways of STEM faculty into their fields, through writing a "Science Biography") as well as issues critical to students' academic lives: the effective use of academic support services; tactics for thriving academically and socially on a diverse campus; identifying and securing early research opportunities at Carleton and elsewhere; the educational and career paths of scientist alumni of color; and pursuing careers in STEM.
  3. FOCUS Sophomore Colloquium: In 2013–2014, based on student feedback, a sophomore colloquium was introduced (1/6 of a course credit per term, adding up to 0.5 course credit over the three terms of the Carleton academic year). In this colloquium, students work together with their cohort mentor on an Academic Civic Engagement (ACE) project that enables them to explore a topic from a variety of perspectives. Students interested in possibly declaring a major in a particular discipline can investigate the topic from the perspective of that discipline. Projects so far have included a multidisciplinary study of light pollution (2013–2014) and a multidisciplinary study of air pollution (2014–2015). Students report their results to their community partners and each other through the creation of electronic journals. These projects are facilitated by the Carleton College Center for Civic Engagement and are frequently identified by students as important components of their persistence in STEM.

Summer Science Fellows: The partial credit (1/3 of a course credit per term, adding up to 2/3 course credit over two terms of the Carleton academic year), SSF Colloquium is designed specifically to prepare students for their upcoming summer research program, including reading and discussing relevant research papers, touring labs, and discussing student questions about the process of research and/or the day-to-day operation of a research lab. This is followed, in the term after the summer research, with a program designed to help students process their accomplishments in their research program and prepare a poster for the on-campus research presentation, which happens every fall term. This colloquium is taught by the SSF cohort mentor, a STEM faculty member.

Student Advising:

Because FOCUS students are selected prior to their arrival on campus, the program can also designate their academic adviser (in most cases). The cohort mentor (a tenured STEM faculty member) is typically their academic adviser. If the numbers are too large for that faculty member to take on the whole cohort, past cohort mentors and/or the program director also are assigned as academic advisers for cohort members. FOCUS students communicate with their academic adviser earlier in the summer than other members of the incoming first-year class, enabling them to have early input from a STEM faculty member as they plan their first-term course schedule. This is in contrast to the random advising assignments typical for incoming first-year students at Carleton which do not commence until the students arrive on campus, and guarantees that FOCUS students get targeted advising from faculty members who are knowledgeable advisers, aware of the challenges and opportunities for STEM students, privy to the best practices for students in navigating challenging and fast-paced STEM courses at Carleton, and attuned to issues specific to students from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in STEM. In some cases where FOCUS students are also part of the cohort of Posse scholars, the FOCUS adviser is a co-adviser, acting jointly with the Posse adviser. Students retain their FOCUS adviser until they are assigned to an adviser in their declared major, at the end of their sophomore year.

Because SSF starts after the students are at Carleton, it is decoupled from advising assignments. The SSF mentor is an unofficial adviser, meeting with all of the students in the SSF cohort through the SSF colloquium and as needed.

Evaluation of the Programs:

Both FOCUS and SSF have been extensively evaluated, in collaboration with staff at the Science Education Resource Center.

Conducting program evaluations in the context of the theoretical framework shown above, which customizes the ECC trilogy model for a residential academic learning community, allowed faculty to better understand how and why the program works, as well as to guide programming. Carleton FOCUS evaluation indicates that students will remain in STEM fields if they increase or retain their passion for math and science, if they succeed in these majors, and if they feel a sense of belonging to Carleton's math and science departments and STEM disciplines overall. Carleton FOCUS refers to this successful approach as a "whole student model." To better understand the accuracy of this model and the specific challenges facing our students, FOCUS evaluators used surveys and interviews of twenty-five students from underrepresented minority (URM) groups in STEM, both within and beyond the cohort programs, shortly after developing the programs. These data allow evaluators to operationalize the model shown in Figure 1 and tune programming to address student challenges. Throughout the analysis, evaluators used a constructivist grounded theory approach; they coded the transcribed interviews for themes and compared themes using an inductive process. Ongoing survey responses were triangulated with the interview themes and have contributed to faculty understanding of the effects of the freshman-year FOCUS strategies and how these influenced students' interests in subfields and their motivation to succeed in STEM courses. Evaluation also helped faculty understand the four major barriers students continue to face:

  • Feeling isolated or as if they did not belong. Feelings of difference can inhibit students' ability to establish support networks. However, the "out of place" feeling is not confined to FOCUS students. It was reported at statistically similar levels by all students doing summer research on campus in STEM (using the Undergraduate Research Student Self-Assessment) as well as by the larger Carleton community (results were independent of class year). This is clearly an institution-level issue, and developing and evaluating objectives in the "Broader FOCUS" project will enable us to identify strategies that will potentially benefit all students.
  • Perception of being underprepared for college and/or STEM fields. Most of the students (19 of 25) interviewed described their worries about being underprepared for Carleton and/or STEM fields. They identified calculus and particular courses in the sciences as especially challenging. Some worried that others might assume they were underprepared for Carleton on the basis of their racial, ethnic, or class identities.
  • Problems with time management and studying. Both cohort and non-cohort students from similar backgrounds identified challenges with time management and studying, particularly in balancing coursework, co-curricular activities, work study, and social life.
  • Need for mentoring and advising (peer and faculty). All students interviewed described the need for peer help, mentoring, and advising. Students reported challenges with selecting courses and understanding course sequences and with knowing whom to ask for help when balancing academic work and competing demands.

Evaluation confirmed that a fundamental aspect of students' drive to succeed is their ability to imagine their pathway forward as a scientist, their development of an identity as a scientist. As a result, FOCUS faculty have increasingly introduced activities to prepare students for research, and designed the recently-added second-year colloquium around a community-engagement research project. Students in the SSF research cohort engage in authentic research experiences that allow them to work on larger projects and take more responsibility for their learning, a central aspect of developing a sense of belonging in the scientific community, gaining confidence in preparing for a career in STEM, and developing a passion to continue. On the 2015 FOCUS and SSF surveys, students were asked how research projects have influenced their confidence and abilities in math and science. Responses were overwhelmingly positive, as shown in the figure, with students seeing research projects as increasing their confidence in their abilities to do math and science coursework, as well as increasing motivation and interest in math and science and their confidence in their ability to get into a good graduate school. When asked how the summer research experience helped them in preparing for a future career, students described how it helped them envision their future career or research interests. No student selected "Disagree" on any item.

A detailed description of the evaluation procedures and results can be found in Gross, D., Iverson, E., Willett, G., & Manduca, C. (2015). Broadening Access to Science With Support for the Whole Student in a Residential Liberal Arts College Environment. Journal of College Science Teaching, 44(4), 99..

A presentation describing program components and evaluation results, presented at the Earth Educators' Rendezvous (July 2015, Boulder CO) is provided here. (Acrobat (PDF) 5.6MB Sep27 15)

Example Curricula for FOCUS Colloquium:

The curriculum for the FOCUS Colloquium in the cohort's first year is reasonably well established, and is handed down from faculty cohort mentor to faculty cohort mentor. The details change from year to year, but the general goals and topics are the same. Each term includes a project and a series of discussions with people on campus who will be important to the FOCUS cohort, including (but not limited to) older FOCUS students, the pre-health adviser, the head of the Academic Skills Center and the Writing Center, faculty from various STEM departments, etc.

  • Fall term includes a data analysis project, done in pairs, that has the following goals:
    • Students develop an idea and identify a data set that is relevant to their idea, in consultation with a librarian, forcing an early interaction with library staff.
    • Students acquire data from a primary or secondary source and graph it in Excel followed by fitting and modeling the data, gaining Excel skills that will benefit them in many courses.
    • Students identify and meet with a faculty or staff expert on campus to discuss their topic, forcing students into an office hour-like experience early on in their first term.
    • Students present their projects to their cohort at the end of the term, gaining practice in oral presentation.
    • An example of a fall term syllabus is provided here. (Acrobat (PDF) 62kB Nov8 15)
  • Winter term includes a data generation and write-up project, in which students carry out some kind of experiment, followed by presentation in a formal lab report.
    • This is often accompanied by reading a book over winter break that is relevant, although this is not done every term.
    • Students are involved in designing the experiment.
    • Students carry out the experiment.
    • Students discuss the form, content, and goals of a written lab report, and what goes into each section before writing.
    • The lab report is graded and commented on by the instructor using the same standards that would be used in an introductory science course.
    • An example of a winter term syllabus is provided here. (Acrobat (PDF) 10kB Nov8 15)
  • Spring term includes written work focusing on presenting one's self and understanding the pathways that brought others into STEM:
    • Students prepare a resume and work with coaches from the Career Center to polish it.
    • Students identify a STEM faculty member they would like to interview, in order to write a "Science/Math Biography" of that person, emphasizing how the person got to his or her current position in STEM at Carleton.
    • Students write either a personal statement that can form the basis for applications or a "Science/Math Autobiography" exploring their own path to their current interests and accomplishments in STEM.
    • An example of a spring term syllabus is provided here. (Acrobat (PDF) 11kB Nov8 15)

The sophomore FOCUS Colloquium is in its third year, and the syllabus is a bit less formal, as students engage in a year-long academic civic engagement project on a different topic each year. An example of the 2014-2015 syllabus is provided here. (Acrobat (PDF) 15kB Nov8 15)

Cost of the Programs:

An estimate of the costs of running both of the cohort programs is provided in this file. (Acrobat (PDF) 77kB Nov7 15)

Other Components of the Programs:

  • FOCUS and Summer Science Fellows contain many components (summarized in the "extra" slides at the end of the presentation linked above in the evaluation section, and described briefly here):
  • Access to skilled "peer mentors," advanced FOCUS students who offer coaching in the science/math courses in which FOCUS students are enrolled.
  • Opportunities to serve as paid science/math peer mentors in and beyond the second year, as part of a "teaching-as-learning" strategy.
  • Opportunities to participate in community service projects as tutors for low-income middle school and high school students, including for new immigrants in the local community.
  • Targeted recruitment to summer research opportunities in the sophomore and junior summers, including the Summer Science Fellows cohort.
  • Dedicated study space. The cohort has access to a seminar-style classroom that is reserved for their exclusive use in the evenings, providing a common space for working on homework.
  • Participation in local or regional professional, industrial or scientific meetings and conferences. Students are eligible to explore a wide array of academic and career opportunities. FOCUS students regularly participate in regional events, such as the annual Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College, and attend national conferences such as the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).
  • Coordination with student academic support, including TRIO. Carleton has strong science support services: tutoring, advising, study groups, peer leaders/supplemental instructors in courses, study skills and time management training.