Initial Publication Date: April 1, 2016

Increasing Persistence of All Students in STEM

We believe that diversity is the engine of excellence in science. Close to a quarter of students at Smith are Pell Grant recipients, about 20% are first-generation college students, and nearly a third are domestic students of color. Our 2014 strategic plan for the sciences, Vision for the Future 2015 (Summer Strategic Planning Committee, 2014), identifies ensuring access for all as a central strategic direction. We are guided by the understanding that persistence and the best scientific thinking emerge from health climates that promote and value a diversity of perspectives. We work to address disparities in gender, racial, and socioeconomic representation in the sciences by pairing rigorous learning experiences with robust support and community building for our students.

The sciences at Smith have engaged in systematic efforts to improve access for all of our students, through our investment in our Achieving Excellence in Mathematics, Engineering, and Sciences (AEMES) programs, our partnership with the Posse Foundation's STEM initiative, and the ongoing work of the Science Center Committee on Diversity. We have also invested in broadening access to science, through our Science Outreach work in local K–12 schools and adult education programs as well as our Summer Science and Engineering Program for girls in grades 9–12.

Achieving Excellence in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science

Established in 2007, the mission of the Achieving Excellence in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science (AEMES) programs is to support students interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and promote the success of students from social groups historically underrepresented in those fields. We seek to ensure access for all students interested in STEM courses and in obtaining research experiences.

Smith faculty members were inspired to create the AEMES programs after attending the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's (HHMI) 2006 "Symposia on Diversity in the Sciences." Institutions with delegations participating in those meetings, Smith among them, were tasked with examining academic outcomes for STEM students of color. We were concerned to find that historically underrepresented students, both our students of color and first-generation college students, were taking life science gateway courses in high numbers at Smith but underperforming in them. Taking seriously the challenge to improve this state of affairs, faculty created our flagship initiative, the AEMES Scholars program, as well as a reinvigoration of a peer mentoring program (first established in 1995) through generous funding from HHMI and the McKinley Fund of Smith College (with additional support from the Dreyfus Foundation).

Program Elements

There are a variety of programs encompassed under the AEMES umbrella. All are overseen by our AEMES Mentoring Committee, a group of science staff and faculty who champion and advocate for an ongoing focus on access and persistence in the sciences. Over the years, Smith's AEMES offerings have expanded to address emerging student needs and to encourage access at various stages of students' academic trajectories. Although most of our programs serve either primarily or exclusively groups of students who have been historically underrepresented in sciences, some of our programs look to ensure access to sciences for our students broadly. This seems a particularly important thing to do at a women's college, given the lack of full representation of women across STEM fields.

The AEMES programs are comprised of five distinct, although overlapping, elements that provide student mentoring, leadership, and/or research opportunities with the goal of building a more diverse STEM community:

AEMES Scholars are recruited from admitted students who are students of color or first-generation students (or both) with a STEM interest. Scholars are paired with faculty and receive stipends for work on their research. Faculty mentors meet weekly with their scholars, and most serve as their academic advisers. In addition to these mentor meetings, scholars are paired with a peer mentor (see below) and earn credit in the fall semester for an applied learning strategies course designed specifically for AEMES Scholars. There are opportunities for student leadership through the AEMES Scholars Advisory Board (AAB), which includes representatives from each of the four cohorts on campus. This group hosts community events for AEMES Scholars and provides a connection between the scholars and the mentoring committee.

Our Peer Mentoring program is our largest. We invite first-year students of color and first-generation students in science gateway courses, including but not limited to our AEMES Scholars and STEM Posse students, to participate. We also follow up in the spring with specific invitations to every student who struggled in a fall gateway course. Ultimately, any student interested in becoming a mentee is matched with a returning student mentor. Pairs connect regularly (contact weekly and in person at least once a month) and participate in community building and networking activities. There are opportunities for student leadership for returning mentors who are eligible to become mentor leaders. These leaders engage in training, planning, and facilitation; provide advice to other mentors; and host community-building events.

This program resulted from broad student demand for access to early faculty-mentored research opportunities. Open to all science students, Early Research pairs students (generally in their first or second year) with a faculty research project for one or two semesters.

Among our newer elements, the McKinley Fellowship programs are open to all science students and allow a small number of juniors and seniors with financial need to pursue advanced research with faculty with the goal of undertaking an honors thesis during the student's senior year. The fellowships enable juniors to pursue advanced research and seniors to pursue honors while fulfilling their work/study obligation by working with their sponsoring faculty member.

  • STEM Posse program

The newest addition to our AEMES programs is Smith's partnership with the Posse Foundation's STEM initiative. In 2015, we welcomed our first "posse" of eleven promising students, chosen through a rigorous selection process, who have an interest in STEM fields and are drawn from New York City public high schools. "Posses" are multicultural student teams that work together, lending each other emotional and social support, thereby increasing persistence and graduation rates. Posse students work closely with a science faculty mentor, beginning in a summer bridge program before the start of their first year in college, and are expected to be positive change agents on campus.

Associated Outcomes

As is apparent from the descriptions of AEMES elements, we continually seek to build more effective programming as we pursue fostering inclusive excellence. In that spirit, we are committed to careful and ongoing reflection and evaluation of our efforts. Below, we describe some of the positive outcomes of the AEMES programs observed to date:

  • Number of science majors

Increasing number of Smith students are attracted to the sciences. Close to 45% of our current students have declared a science major, a rate at least double the national average for women. In disciplines in which women are most underrepresented (e.g., computer science), our students major at rates up to three times the national average.

  • Improved outcomes for diverse students

Using academic record data, we have engaged in a series of program evaluations of our AEMES students recently, examining our Scholars' outcomes in relation to peer comparison groups. Scholars have shown significant gains in important measures since the launch of AEMES, including introductory biology and chemistry course GPA, persistence in science, and participation in advanced research (see DiBartolo et al., 2015 and Katz et al., 2015 for early analyses). See Katz et al. (under review) for further detail. Additional analyses of our AEMES outcomes are ongoing.

  • Institutional commitments

When Smith was asked to make an institutional commitment to increase access and success for low-income students in higher education through the White House Summit on College Opportunity in January 2014, Smith's President, Kathleen McCartney, opted to invest in the STEM Posse initiative. In order to create this partnership, Smith participated in a competitive process with other top-tier colleges and universities to host a posse and join the nine other colleges and universities with a STEM Posse partnership.

In addition, although the launch of AEMES programming was made possible through generous grant funding from HHMI as well as other grant and one-time funding, the college has recently agreed to roll the costs of the program into its core operating budget.

Finally, colleagues beyond the sciences are interested in creating programs similar to AEMES in support of inclusive excellence. Smith's economics department, for example, is launching its own peer mentoring program based on the AEMES model. In addition, although our peer mentors had historically received stipends for their work, the mentoring committee recently decided to eliminate stipends in favor of fostering the true spirit of mentorship, which is voluntary.

There has been no notable decline in peer mentor participation since making this change, which speaks to the generosity of the students with their time. We are pleased that our model can be more cost-efficient as we consider how to help disseminate our program beyond our division.

We will continue to analyze and understand our students, their needs, and our programming's benefits in order to reallocate our resources and shape programming efforts moving forward.

Science Center Committee on Diversity

The Science Center Committee on Diversity (SCCD) brings together students, staff, and faculty in order to initiate, plan, and implement programming focused on issues of diversity and social justice in STEM at Smith. SCCD aims to ensure that offerings and opportunities in STEM disciplines are accessible to all students, working to enable full participation of groups that historically have been underrepresented in STEM disciplines. In recent years, SCCD has hosted high-profile experts on issues of access in science for speaking engagements and organized on-campus events that highlight ways in which we can make our community more aware of and responsive to the diversity our students bring to our labs and classrooms. SCCD also has engaged in discussion and analysis of the institutional systems and structures at the college that might impact diverse students. As a result of these discussions, SCCD recently successfully petitioned the college's Committee on Academic Priorities, the central body governing Smith's curriculum, to require every department and program to analyze and address its accessibility to diverse student populations at the time when each takes up its required decennial review.

Summer Science and Engineering Program

The Smith Summer Science and Engineering Program (SSEP), in existence since 1990, annually provides approximately 100 young women in high school (grades 9–12) with strong STEM interests the opportunity to reside at Smith for four weeks while engaging in hands-on research with Smith faculty in engineering and the life and physical sciences. This program began with HHMI and other grant funding and has become self-sustaining. Since its launch, the SSEP has offered nearly 1,800 promising female science students, from 46 states and 54 countries, the opportunity to engage in investigative and challenging learning in an environment rich with strong role models and invested in fostering the success of women in science. This program has also enriched our undergraduate curriculum. SSEP serves as a laboratory for developing investigative laboratories that are incorporated into our undergraduate curriculum as well as disseminated beyond Smith (Kirby et al., in press; Merritt et al., 2008).

Science Outreach Program

Science Outreach is made possible by a partnership between Smith's Clark Science Center and its Jandon Center for Community Collaboration. The goals of Science Outreach are to connect the college with local schools and organizations, create opportunities for our students to teach science and engineering, and enhance science education and professional development in the sciences across our region. About 200 of our students each year are involved in delivering lessons and activities to thousands of K–12 and adult learning students. Many of these Science Outreach collaborations focus on making connections with groups traditionally underrepresented in science, especially girls (see sidebar) in order to broaden engagement with science in our local community.

Science Teaching Fellowship/Internship Program

Our Science Teaching Fellowship/Internship program, underwritten by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, places pairs of undergraduate science majors in local schools to teach kindergarten to high school students during a week in January. Prior to their placements, our undergraduates participate in a series of classes focused on best practices pedagogies, science curriculum standards, and lesson planning and classroom management. They then are placed in about a dozen classrooms, teaching about 250 students on a wide range of topics (e.g., states of matter; simple machines; electromagnetism; elements and chemistry).

Self-reported survey responses of our 2015 undergraduate fellows indicate that all of them felt more confident in teaching a wide spectrum of students (e.g., those with English as a second language or learners with individualized education plans) and judge that they were able to create and deliver science lessons for different grade levels at the end of the program. Results from the last six years of the program echo its benefits for our students, with about 90 indicating that they improved their ability to teach and deliver science content as well as plan and organize activities. About three-quarters of these fellowship participants report increased knowledge of science, greater confidence about majoring in science/engineering, and higher feelings of capability in the sciences after completing the fellowship program.

The supervising teachers in the local schools with whom our students partner echoed our students' self-assessments, with 100% of these teachers rating our students as good or excellent in their communication, content knowledge, lesson plan design, and written and presentation materials. Our students also received good marks for their ability to work in a heterogeneous classroom, with 86% of local teachers rating our students as good or excellent on this measure.

References (undergraduate co-authors are in bold)

Katz, L.A., Aloisio, K.M., Flores, Y., Horton, N., Joseph, V., Lipp, K., Ly, M., Pruss, S., Queeney, K., Rowen, C., & DiBartolo, P.M. (2015, June). Improving outcomes for underrepresented women in the life sciences; The Achieving Excellence in Mathematics, Engineering, and Sciences (AEMES) programs at Smith College. Poster presentation at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Studio meeting, "Promoting persistence and access: Adapting promising practices and promoting institutional change," Chevy Chase, MD. Katz et al. pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 397kB Oct19 15)

Katz, L.A., Aloisio, K.M., Horton, N.J., Ly, M., Pruss, S., Queeney, K., Rowen, C., & DiBartolo, P.M. (under review). A program aimed toward inclusive excellence for underrepresented undergraduate women in the sciences.

Kirby, C.S., N. Kolber, A.M.S. Almohaidi, L.A. Bierwert, L. Saunders, S. Williams and R.B. Merritt, in press. Human Xq28 inversion polymorphism: From sex linkage to genomics—a genetic mother lode. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education.

Merritt, R.B., L.A. Bierwert, B. Slatko, M. Weiner, J. Ingram, K. Sciarra, and E. Weiner, 2008. Tasting phenylthiocarbamide (PTC): A new integrative genetics lab with an old flavor. The American Biology Teacher 70(5).

DiBartolo, P.M., Joseph, V., & Pruss, S. (2015, November). Increased retention of underrepresented students in STEM fields through Smith College's AEMES (Achieving Excellence in Math, Engineering and Science) Programs: The impact of mentoring. Poster presentation at the Association of American Colleges and Universities/Project Kaleidoscope meeting, "Crossing boundaries: Transforming STEM Education," Seattle, WA. DiBartolo et al., 2015 (Acrobat (PDF) 494kB Nov7 15)

Summer Strategic Planning Committee (2014, November). Vision for the Future, 2015: Strategic Planning. Smith College: Author. Vision for the Future pdf (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 144kB Oct20 15)