Initial Publication Date: April 1, 2016

Increasing Persistence of All Students in STEM

The Grinnell Science Project (GSP), initiated in 1992, was developed to support domestic students of color, first-generation students, and other students from groups underrepresented in the sciences. Previous analyses had shown that students from these groups were at increased risk of poor academic performance in introductory science courses and lack of persistence in science. We learned that risk factors for low grades in introductory math and science courses were not low high school grades or standardized exam scores, but included being a first-generation college student, graduating from a high school where fewer than half the students enrolled in a four-year college, or being a domestic student of color. In addition, while women outperformed men in introductory math and physical science courses, disproportionately few women pursued majors in these fields. The GSP includes a pre-orientation program aimed at building community, pedagogical changes in introductory science and mathematics courses, the Science Learning Center, which supports peer mentoring and tutoring, and early opportunities for engaging in research. Over the past twenty years, there has been a remarkable increase in the number of domestic students of color graduating with STEM degrees, presumably as a result of the changes that have been made.

Nearly all science faculty members have participated in some aspect of these efforts, and leadership has involved a broad range of individuals, stemming from intentional comprehensive ownership and faculty development.

Program elements

  • A week long pre-orientation program is offered to students who are members of our target population, the week before the regular new student orientation. Since the barriers to persistence to graduation appear not to be lack of academic preparation but rather environmental or social issues, the focus of the program is on building community, establishing relationships with faculty and staff, problem-solving, and providing students with tools to excel.
  • The Science Learning Center supports peer mentoring and tutoring in biology, chemistry, and physics. The Math Lab supports math and other quantitative courses.
  • Early opportunities for increased mentoring and engaging in research
  • Spaces to support building community were also a critical element of our efforts. As we renovated and expanded Grinnell's Noyce Science Center, we created at least two types of informal student spaces. One is a sort of department commons space with tables and chairs that are within an area clearly defined as biology or mathematics. While there are no doors, these became known as departmentally focused. The other type is tables and chairs or more informal furnishings that are in wide spots in corridors, often near classrooms. These spaces are clearly open to anyone, and those who might worry that they do not belong do not get the impression that they are "invading" someone else's space, and the population of students using those spaces is quite diverse, including first- and second-year students, students of color, and those who might not yet strongly identify as science majors, but who are still drawn into the community. Some sample student comments from focus groups with second-year science students include:
  • "I think Noyce is extremely excellent for supporting collaboration and openness, because there's just like tables, and you just like walk by, and you see someone at a table, and you chat about the homework. So I think the communal spaces here really do a lot to help that."

    "I can just go to the computer science lounge and see other people and chill with them. Having more spaces where people can have that interaction—that tends to make people feel like they belong."

A primary tool for accomplishing the goals of the GSP was weaving a web of mentoring (Acrobat (PDF) 229kB Jul28 15), not only close mentoring of students by their teachers, but also student-to-student and faculty-to-faculty. Curricular and pedagogical changes are both substantial and nearly universal. The GSP was also greatly influential in the design of new science facilities at Grinnell College. While the initial impetuous for the effort came from some key individuals, the execution and continuous improvement lies within virtually all science faculty. This high level of involvement, including curricular development, community building activities, and mentoring, insures sustainability.

Direct activities aimed at students include:

  • Group projects embedded in nearly all beginning and intermediate courses, where students are guided by faculty members and experienced upper-level students
  • In nearly all beginning and intermediate courses, experienced students are embedded as class mentors. The mentors attend class sessions, assist with in class activities and run evening and weekend problem-solving sessions for the students.
  • Special early research opportunities for the target population, either hourly work in research labs during the academic year or academic breaks, or for credit academic year or summer research.

The number of domestic students of color graduating with STEM degrees from Grinnell has increased dramatically. In addition, the number of women graduating with degrees in physical and computational sciences has also increased substantially.

By promoting student achievement and excellence in teaching and learning, the Grinnell Science Project addresses the issue of increasing the diversity of the STEM workforce, using a range of activities all of which are rooted in intensive mentoring and building a community of scientists (students and faculty alike) that supports persistence in science through and after graduation:

  • Change in Demographics of Science Graduates at Grinnell College (Acrobat (PDF) 160kB Jul27 15)
  • Prior to the Grinnell Science Project, from 1992–1994, an average of 42 science majors graduated annually who were women and eight who were students of color. By the 2011–2015 period, those numbers had jumped to an annual average of 77 women (an 83% increase) and 33 students of color (an over 300% increase).
  • Over 700 students have participated in the pre-orientation program, and they earned higher average grades compared with those who were invited but did not attend.
  • Thousands of other students have benefited from the curricular and pedagogical changes, as well as from the mentoring relationships that have been established by GSP.
  • Nearly 70% of the college's science majors enter graduate degree programs. As reported by the National Science Foundation, Grinnell ranks seventh on a per-capita basis among all U.S. higher education institutions in producing science graduates who go on to pursue a PhD.

Recent efforts have focused on second-year students

Despite the effectiveness of efforts associated with the Grinnell Science Project that are largely focused on introductory-level students, there are indications that the second-year experience in the sciences is particularly challenging. Previous work (Gansemer-Tofp, Stern, and Benjamin, 2007) showed that Grinnell students face significant challenges in their second year, including increased rigor in their coursework, less engagement with support structures emphasized in the first year, increasing demands of extra-curricular activities, and making decisions such as declaring a major and applying for off-campus study. Some faculty teaching in 200-level science courses observed that this seemed to be a stressful time for some of their students, in a way that could affect persistence in STEM majors. This led to analysis of registration and transcript information of students who registered for intermediate (200)-level sciences courses but did not complete them with a grade of C or better. Data revealed underperformance by students of color (Black, Latina/o, Asian, Native American, and Multi-ethnic) and first-generation students relative to students not in those groups enrolled in 200-level (intermediate) science courses. This gap was of particular concern in Biology 251 (Molecules, Cells, and Organisms) and Chemistry 221 (Organic Chemistry), intermediate-level biology and chemistry courses that serve as gateway courses to biology, chemistry, and biological chemistry majors as well as pre-health students. Programming designed largely to enhance students' sense of belonging and provide supportive structures to make pathways to success in STEM more visible to students has apparently narrowed the gap, such that rates of successful completion of gateway courses for students of color and first-generation students are closer to other students than before the implementation of these efforts.

Programming elements implemented to support inclusive excellence included for second-year students included faculty development, pedagogical reform of some 200-level courses, and increased opportunities and support for second-year students. Faculty development efforts included support for curricular reform, including coordination between faculty teaching 200-level Biology and Chemistry gateway courses. Faculty also attended seminars, workshops, and lunches to learn about and discuss experiences and readings related to specific topics known to affect inclusion and persistence in the sciences such as understanding meta-cognition, implicit bias, managing effective group work, and active learning. To increase student support, staffing for the Science Learning Center was increased, research and job opportunities for targeted groups of students were made available, and funding was provided for students to attend and present at meetings dedicated to increase participation of students from groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences, such as annual meetings for the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, and the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students.

Perhaps the most significant programming effort to provide increased support for students was the implementation of a second-year science retreat.

All second-year students enrolled in a science course appropriate for a pathway to a major in the sciences are invited to participate in a day-long retreat. The retreat is held on a Saturday, early in the fall term. Programming of the retreat is focused on helping students identify and meet challenges of second-year science students and includes activities facilitated by faculty, staff, upper-level students, and alumni. Activities were designed to help students to navigate the curriculum, manage their workload, prepare for research, explore majors and career options, and build a sense of being part of a supportive community within the sciences at Grinnell. About half of the invited students students participated, and on an evaluation survey, over 80% said they would encourage others to attend and agreed that the retreat helped them feel better prepared for the academic challenges they are facing in their second year, helped them develop a clearer sense of their goals, helped them develop a clearer sense of how their Grinnell education can help them pursue their life goals, helped them better understand the opportunities and resources available, and enhanced their sense of belonging in the sciences at Grinnell. Student feedback has helped the programming to evolve, particularly focusing upon interactions with faculty members. Due to the value students placed on informal interactions with faculty during the retreat, a regular lunch series for students to dine informally with faculty teaching the 200-level biology and chemistry courses has been implemented.

Assessment in order to better understand the challenges faced by second year STEM students and to better support them and encourage them to persist and excel included:

  • Analysis of registration and transcript information, disaggregated by course identity and student demographics.
  • Survey and focus groups of second-year students. These informed establishing a second-year science retreat early in the second year. One of the outcomes of the survey is that there is a large commonality to student concerns, and the retreat points out that many of the concerns are "normal" and includes sessions with more experienced students and faculty members suggesting strategies for dealing with common challenges.


Promoting Equity and Success in STEM (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 1.8MB Jul27 15)

Gansemer-Topf, AM, Stern, J, & Benjamin, M. Examining the Experiences of Second-Year Students at a Private Liberal Arts College. In: Tobolowsky, BF and Cox, BE, editors. Shedding light on sophomores: An exploration of the second college year (Monograph No. 47). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition; 2007. p. 31–48

Gregg-Jolly, L.A., Swartz, J.E., Iverson, E., Stern, J., Brown, N., and D. Lopatto. Situating Second-Year Success: Understanding Second-Year STEM Experiences at a Liberal Arts College. 2016 CBE-Life Sciences Education, special issue "Broadening Participation in the Life Sciences". 15:ar43. doi: 10.1187/cbe.16-01-0044

Sieck, SR. Building Connections in Biology and Chemistry Courses in the Second-Year Curriculum [abstract]. In: American Chemical Society 249th annual meeting program; 2015 March 22-26; Denver.

Abstract: Over the course of the past decade, faculty members of both the biology and chemistry departments of Grinnell College have been intentionally building connections between the organic chemistry and biology courses students take. A majority (>80%) of students enrolled in organic chemistry are also co-enrolled in a 200 level biology course called Molecules, Cells, and Organisms during their second year. In attempting to showcase the interdisciplinary nature of these sciences we have developed a number of shared resources, problem sets, conceptual modules, and exam questions that are appropriate for use in both the Organic Chemistry and Molecules, Cells, and Organisms courses. Many of the activities are specifically directed at helping students develop skills that enable them to address complex problems requiring multi-disciplinary approaches, and working in a community. We will discuss how we have designed, coordinated, and evaluated the enhancements to the curriculum we have implemented in the last ten years. In particular, we will discuss how we have developed and continue to maintain interdepartmental collaborations to make these activities possible.