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June 5, 2019

How MSU is increasing the number of STEM graduates 

As a first-year student, Jessica Kwalli didn’t score well on her math placement exam, which meant she had to take the lowest level math course. This was a setback that could’ve cost her more time and money to earn a medical-related degree – if she could struggle through the math. But then Kwali learned about MSU’s Dow STEM Scholars Program and four years later she graduated and spoke at her college commencement ceremony.

Kwalli was part of the first cohort of the Dow STEM program that launched in 2014 with a $5 million grant from the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation to further its goal of increasing the number of STEM degree holders graduating from Michigan’s universities. The program helps students who did not receive the pre-college math training they needed to pursue degrees in science-related fields.

The problem

In developing the program, MSU faculty found that students initially had great interest in pursuing STEM majors, but many never completed these degrees.

“Many students don’t receive the pre-college math and science training needed to pursue degrees and, ultimately, careers in science-related fields,” said Robin Rennie, director of the Dow STEM Scholars Program. “Based on pre-MSU math testing scores, the statistical prediction for these students to successfully graduate in a STEM field was less than 6%.”

Lack of pre-college readiness is an issue across the nation. According to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology 2012 report, many students who start undergraduate programs in STEM fields do not complete them because they are inadequately prepared.

Rennie said issues are that first-year students who were unprepared in math and science also reported a high level of social disconnect, failure to acclimate to college life and lacked skills needed for academic success.

“Knowing that students had additional issues to contend with, we developed a program that included academic skills training, personalized advising and mentoring, and activities to build community and a sense of belonging,” she said.

How the program works

Each Dow STEM scholar attends a special academic orientation program the summer before their first year. It’s here where they meet other scholars and faculty and staff who help the new students transition from high school.

All scholars are assigned a peer mentor to help with the transition and to provide social and academic support throughout the school year. To help build a sense of belonging and community, scholars are also offered a wide variety of academic and social activities.

Academic support comes in the form of a gateway summer course in math designed to help the transition from high school to MSU entry-level courses. This course is a hybrid with on-campus and off-site classes, phone and video support, and online programming to reach enrolled students. When students successfully complete this course, they are enrolled in specially designed MSU courses in math and chemistry, and a first-year seminar designed to build success skills for upper-level STEM courses.

The results

Almost three-quarters of the students who took the summer course were able to start with the rest of their peers in the entry-level math course, and more than 80% earned overall GPAs of 3.0 or higher, with one-third earning 3.5 or higher. Demographically, 77% of scholars were female, 55% were Pell eligible and 52% were first-generation students.

The inaugural graduates earned degrees in kinesiology, biomedical laboratory science, zoology, human biology, biochemistry and molecular biology, and genomics and molecular genetics. Most graduated in four years and the rest are on track to graduate in less than six years, which is the milestone used nationally to measure graduation rates.

“We’re extremely proud to see these students succeed and graduate in a timely manner,” said Mark Largent, interim associate provost of undergraduate education. “Programs like these empower students and provide them with the resources they need to be successful.”

As for Kwalli, she spent her senior year working as a technician at a brain injury rehabilitation center. She also participated in many different campus organizations, holding leadership positions, and was an active volunteer on and off campus, while managing to make the dean’s list every semester. She just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, passing many rigorous math and science courses, thanks to the help of the Dow program.

“The Dow program was very beneficial,” she said. “If I hadn’t done that, it would have thrown me off for many semesters. The Dow program helped me through many things.”

By: Kim Ward

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