Increasing Persistence of All Students in STEM

As Swarthmore has expanded its commitment to provide opportunities for students with exceptional promise from diverse backgrounds, our entering students bring a wide range of skills and prior experience to their introductory science and math courses. Swarthmore is committed to expanding access to learning, no matter what type of educational background students have. Faculty in the Division of Natural Sciences and Engineering (NSE) aim to increase the number of students who succeed as NSE majors, to include even those who enter the college without strong high school backgrounds in math and science.

Academic Peer-Mentoring Programs in Introductory Courses

Academic peer-mentoring programs across the Division of Natural Science and Engineering (NSE) feature peer-facilitated evening workshops to support student learning and success in introductory courses. In Biology, Engineering, Computer Science, Mathematics, Chemistry, and Physics, undergraduate mentors host evening study sessions to support younger students in specific introductory courses as they study for quizzes, explore concepts, solve challenging problems, and collaborate with their peers. Each introductory course is supported by a diverse group of student mentors who have successfully completed the course and are enthusiastic about helping other students. They are trained by a program coordinator in each department to be effective peer facilitators. While attendance is optional, the evening workshop sessions are popular gathering places for students in the introductory courses, and they build a foundation for a culture of collaborative learning across the NSE division.

Program Implementation

  • The peer mentoring programs are centered in individual NSE departments, encouraging faculty ownership and development of students' identities as biologists, engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, etc.
  • Evening study group meetings are held in classrooms or conference rooms in the heart of each department, and are typically supplemented with an array of snacks. Peer mentors strive to promote a relaxed and collaborative environment as they encourage students to work in small groups on problems assigned by the course faculty.
  • Faculty who teach the introductory courses encourage all students to attend the evening study group meetings, not just those who may be struggling in the course. Because the faculty members provide challenging problems to be the focus of group work, even students with strong preparation find that they develop new skills and insights by participating in the evening sessions.
  • Each department has an Academic Support Coordinator, a staff member who provides leadership and structure to the program. The coordinators work with department faculty to select a diverse team of peer facilitators each semester. They provide pedagogical training for the student mentors and work closely with faculty to support students in the introductory courses.


  • A significant challenge in implementing the program was the cost of hiring staff coordinators in multiple departments. This was greatly facilitated by grants from HHMI. From 2005 until 2012, the program was supported by both HHMI and the college, with a growing portion of the costs borne by Swarthmore. It has been fully college-funded since 2012.


  • In surveys and interviews, most students agree that attending the peer-facilitated study sessions helps them to build confidence in their ability to solve scientific problems, and makes the science more enjoyable and interesting.
  • An important aim of our peer-mentoring programs is to increase the number of students from groups historically underrepresented in science who succeed as NSE majors, as well as those who enter the college without strong high school backgrounds in math and science. Institutional data indicate that increasing numbers of Swarthmore women and students from underrepresented groups have graduated with majors or minors in NSE departments in recent years. Historical gaps in persistence have narrowed and in some cases are no longer significant.

Swarthmore Summer Scholars Program

Many students are intellectually ready, but may be academically underprepared, for the rigors of college education in STEM fields. In order to support these students as they begin their studies at Swarthmore College, the Summer Scholars Program was launched in 2015 with college and donor funding. This competitive-entry program provides sixteen students with a full academic immersion experience during five weeks of the summer prior to entering the college. Summer Scholars come from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM disciplines, from underperforming high schools, or from low-income backgrounds. Many are the first in their families to attend college.

Summer Scholars develop a familiarity with the type of coursework expected at Swarthmore and benefit from the unique opportunity to get to know some of their professors before fall classes begin. The Summer Scholars Program does not end after the five-week immersion experience. Faculty who teach in the program continue to work with students for the duration of their time at Swarthmore, in both formal and informal settings. Each student is matched to a professor and receives mentoring during all four years at the college. This extension of the program provides students with an invaluable opportunity to receive guidance specific to their individual backgrounds, areas of challenge, and plans for the future.

Science for Kids

Each year, the Chester Children's Chorus runs a five-week Summer Learning Program at Swarthmore College for children from the Chester-Upland School District, an under-resourced and low-performing district in the second most dangerous city in the United States (according to Neighborhood Scout) that neighbors the Borough of Swarthmore. From a larger group of students, about 60 children entering fifth through ninth grades participate in Science for Kids (SFK), an HHMI-funded science enrichment program. SFK is a popular elective, and many children ask to return each summer.

The goals of Science for Kids are: (a) to expose children from academically underserved populations to investigative science and to develop positive role models; (b) to involve Swarthmore students in the community as science educators; (c) to enhance pre-college science education by connecting K–8 teachers with our science faculty and students; and (d) to support learning objectives suggested by state and national science standards.

Program Implementation

  • Program structure and location – Science for Kids program coordinators and instructors are drawn from the faculty and instructional staff of Swarthmore College and from the faculty of a local elementary school. The inquiry-based curriculum begins with a Science 1 Workshop for fifth graders and progresses to a Science 4 Workshop for eighth and ninth graders. Two-person instructor teams teach Science 1 and Science 2. Individual instructors teach Science 3 and Science 4. SFK Workshops are in session for one hour each day over the course of five weeks; they are held in the Swarthmore College Science Center, making use of laboratories, equipment and meeting spaces in the chemistry, physics and biology departments.
  • Involving college students – Swarthmore College students are an essential element of Science for Kids. During spring semester, students who plan to be on campus for our summer research program are recruited by instructors to serve as SFK Counselors. SFK workshops are scheduled for mid-day during the summer research period, so that research students can coordinate their service with the lunch hour. To provide adequate support for active learning during the workshops, we seek to maintain a ratio of one adult (instructor or counselor) for every two Chorus children. Instructors meet with the counselors several times before and during the five-week program for discussion that aims to build teamwork, illuminate goals, and improve practices within each of the Science 1–4 Workshops. The college students value the opportunity to share their passion for science and see themselves as role models for these young minds.
  • Curricular focus – Science for Kids activities have been developed to teach essential scientific practices, such as making observations and working with evidence. Each workshop level combines elements of biology, chemistry, physics, math, and engineering into active, inquiry-informed lessons. Lesson topics have included: optics, microscope design, planetary exploration and astrobiology, solid-fuel model rocketry, plastic recycling and polymer chemistry, surface tension, plant physiology, insect physiology, animal behavior, metabolism, geometry/symmetry, chromatography, magnetism, cell structure and mitosis, and DNA testing (PCR). Instructors meet several times during the academic year to organize the sequenced and integrated curricula. Themes are constructed with intention to be revisited at each level.
  • Active learning approach – Daily workshop activities include discussion with instructors and counselors, hands-on experience with a wide range of laboratory materials, and written reflection by each participant in a personal laboratory notebook. In response to ongoing evaluation of the SFK teaching approach, the program has implemented a successful intervention called the ICAN probe. As part of their regular laboratory procedure, participants write responses to two or three open-ended probes in their notebooks each day (e.g., ICAN use a microscope like a scientist; ICAN draw things very carefully and label them clearly like a scientist; ICAN identify places where lots of bacteria grow). The probes are written by the workshop instructors and intended to help focus the participants' attention on key aspects of the activity. They stretch the participants' thinking about the day's work and its connection to preceding activities.
  • Culminating exercise – Each summer, the children participate in a culminating science fair, where they take the lead in presenting posters and demonstrations created with support from instructors and counselors. The vibrant and well-attended event is open to all staff, faculty and students and to all of the Chorus parents and children, fueling interest among younger members of the Chorus and the broader summer community at the College.
  • Funding – The SFK program was piloted in 2004 with funding from the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility at Swarthmore College. It has been supported primarily by grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) since 2005. In recent years, several faculty members have incorporated SFK service into successful proposals to other funding agencies. This supplemental funding and volunteer participation by faculty members have enabled us to expand programming and offer additional opportunities to Swarthmore College students. Alumni groups are presently seeking out ways to support SFK.


  • Evaluation of the SFK Workshops has focused on the impact of the workshop experience on participants' developing interest in science and science learning. In early findings, we determined the need for participants to be supported to reflect on the inquiry activities in which they engaged, so that their interest and understanding of science would be sustained five weeks following workshop completion. We have successfully adapted use of an ICAN Intervention to support the participants to reflect on activity and are now studying its use to support the participants to work with evidence. Our findings indicate that the ICAN Intervention supports participants to deepen their interest and also their science learning over the course of the workshop. Moreover, it appears that regardless of entering level of science interest, participants who responded to more ICAN probes during the workshop were those who made the most gains.
  • Evaluation of the involvement of Swarthmore College students as counselors in Science for Kids indicates that the experience is particularly beneficial for those who have less-developed interests in their majors, as it provides an opportunity to consolidate their science understanding in ways that can serve as a scaffold to more effective work in the laboratory. For all SFK counselors, we find that it is a high point of the summer.

Recent publications

Renninger, K. A., *Austin, L., *Bachrach, J. E., *Chau, A., *Emmerson, M., *King, R. B., *Riley, K. R., & *Stevens, S. J. (2014). Going beyond Whoa! That's Cool! Achieving science interest and learning with the ICAN Intervention. In S. Karabenick & T. Urdan, (Eds.), Motivation-based learning interventions, Advances in Motivation and Achievement series, Volume 18 (107–140). London: Emerald Group Publishing.

Renninger, K. A. & *Bachrach, J. E. (2015). Studying triggers for interest and engagement using observational methods. Educational Psychologist, 50(1), 58–69.

Renninger, K. A. & *Riley, K. R. (in press). The ICAN Intervention: Supporting learners to make connections to science content during science inquiry. Science Scope.