The Science Experience at Xavier

Program Overview

Xavier University of Louisiana, founded in 1925 by St. Katharine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, is the only Historically Black, Catholic University in the nation. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has been vital in Xavier's impressive success in the sciences. Thanks to the multi-year HHMI grants spanning well over a decade, the university was able to establish the highly successful BIOSTAR, MATHSTAR, and CHEMSTAR outreach summer programs, revamp its entire science/pre-med curriculum, and offer students a high-quality education complete with laboratory and research experiences that instill a lifelong interest in science. The results were spectacular and frequent; Xavier continually ranks high in the nation for sending African American students into biomedical, medical, and STEM careers.

Through the 1990s and beyond, Xavier experienced rapid growth in the sciences, particularly in biology and the pre-med programs. In fact, in August 2005, the university recorded one of its highest incoming freshmen enrollments. Sadly, less than a week after that announcement, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast region and all of New Orleans. The devastation caused by Katrina flooded literally every building on campus and nearly every neighborhood in the city, thereby forcing evacuation and closure of the school for the entire Fall 2005 semester. Although surrounded by destruction, Xavier (XU) re-opened its doors for students in January 2006. Almost 75% of the freshmen "Katrina" class of 2005 chose to return to XU over family concerns and existing difficulties; a clear testimony of its excellence in the sciences and all undergraduate programs. Under the leadership of then President Dr. Norman C. Francis, accompanied by the support of dedicated faculty members and staff, the re-building was highly successful. Post-Katrina, the numbers of STEM faculty members active in research and/or pedagogy continued to increase and now exceed the pre-Katrina years. New teaching and research labs, along with modernized shared resources like the cell culture and molecular biology facilities, have expanded research opportunities for XU students and the development of new elective courses with interdisciplinary content. Combined, these efforts resulted in a 2011 study supported by grants between the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), NASA, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Otto Haas Charitable Trust #2. This study ranked Xavier as first in the nation in producing African American graduates who earn PhDs in life sciences, fifth in the nation in producing African American graduates who earn science and engineering PhDs, and seventh in the nation in producing African American graduates who earn PhDs in the physical sciences.

Xavier University, however, is not without its challenges. While enrollment numbers continue to be robust in the sciences, particularly in the biology department, retention rates from the freshman to sophomore level and beyond can be further improved, as can the graduation rates of first-time freshmen. Internal analysis suggests that, while a percentage of students do change their major, significant numbers are lost due to financial difficulties and/or because some students are underprepared for the rigors of college education. The university continues to offer a wide range of academic and scholarship support including the currently HHMI-funded initiative entitled Project SCICOMP that is helping XU address these challenges. Through Project SCICOMP, XU is revising its undergraduate curriculum to make it more experiential, inquiry-based, and competency-based; the overarching objective is to increase the number of underrepresented minority students who are prepared for leadership roles in science and medicine.

Cross-Cutting Themes

Increasing Persistence of All Students in STEM

More about this theme Xavier was founded at a time when an opportunity of higher education was denied to students of color, particularly, African Americans, Native Americans, and to women. Central to its mission, XU routinely accepts disadvantaged students who are underprepared for college, and also those with high ACT/SAT scores and high GPAs from high school. All students are then offered the unique Xavier experience in form of peer tutoring, one-on-one academic help by instructors, research opportunities, academic advising and a range of activities designed to increase the spirit of cooperation and friendship. The central goal of the Xavier experience is to increase students' confidence and bring out the best in each one, thus increasing their persistence in STEM or any other major.

Developing Inquiry Skills

More about this theme As part of Project SCICOMP, using university and/or HHMI funds, all introductory science and several upper-level electives at Xavier, particularly in biology, have undergone revisions to increase focus on inquiry-based teaching.

Fostering Interdisciplinary or Integrative Learning

More about this theme Keeping up with the national trend, faculty at Xavier have increased their efforts to make their curriculum more integrative. With the support of the administration and as part of Project SCICOMP, new courses have been developed. For example, Biomedical Physics and Foundations in Biology introduce fundamentals of biostatistics, biochemistry and computer applications. Pre-existing courses have been infused with modules to enrich the interdisciplinary participation (in form of guest speakers from other departments.) Even in the supportive existing courses like physics, calculus and general biology, conscious efforts have been made, where appropriate, to include principles of other disciplines with day-to-day examples so students understand the interconnections of other fields of study.

Pathways to Institutional Change

The post-Katrina institutional level foundation continued the campus-wide initiatives to improve all academic and non-academic systems to best serve Xavier's students, faculty, and staff. On the academic side, significant efforts are currently being invested in reducing the general education/core requirements (60 hours) without compromising the liberal arts focus of the institution. This change, although not easy, is essential to allow students to take more courses in their major or in their areas of interest. This is particularly necessary for our STEM majors, which comprise ~70% of all undergraduates. Through mini-grants from the university's Center for the Advancement of Teaching and a variety of externally funded programs, faculty are developing interdisciplinary courses (for example Biomedical Physics and Biology in Literature) which are team-taught. Such courses are able to fulfill the core requirements and requirements in the major. Other ongoing institutional level projects are aimed at increasing research opportunities for all students (regardless of their major) through initiatives funded through agencies like the NIH, NSF, LA Board of Regents and Louisiana Cancer Research Consortium. Selected students are paired with on-campus mentors during the semesters and with on- or off-campus mentors during the summers. They are expected to present their findings at local, regional and/or national level meetings. Given the large number of our STEM majors and the increasing focus on problem-solving and data analysis, developing more courses with embedded research projects and labs with open-ended exercises has also become a priority. Last but not least, through the ongoing Project SCICOMP funded by HHMI, Xavier's curricula are becoming more competency-based, with the courses becoming more integrative. Students are learning to think like researchers so they can approach problems, activities and experiments in biology, for example, using knowledge from other STEM areas. Preliminary data from freshmen-level biology courses show the positive impact of such competency-based teaching approach on student learning and their academic performance.

Funding Acknowledgment

All projects described here have been made possible through ongoing or completed support from a number of funding agencies. These are being gratefully acknowledged as follows:

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Louisiana Board of Regents, the Department of Education, the Louisiana Cancer Research Consortium (LCRC), the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the Sherman Fairchild Foundation, the Keck Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the Bush Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, British Petroleum (BP), Apple Computers and BellSouth.

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