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Your source to discuss and learn about education in Georgia and the nation and share opinions and news with Maureen Downey

How do we get more college students to stick with STEM?

Brooke Skelton is associate professor of physics and astronomy at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College.  She is leading the faculty team implementing the “I Am STEM” initiative, which she writes about today for the Get Schooled blog.

By Brooke Skelton

As I grew up, the expectation was that I would go to college. My parents were college graduates and worked in education.

Later, it was assumed my classmates and I (12 physics majors at a liberal arts institution) would go to graduate school. A few years later, I earned my doctorate from a highly regarded astronomy program.

Why, for me, was this progression through education inevitable, when for many it is not? The answer goes beyond what may seem the obvious challenge of financing a college education.

The road to a career in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) is not easy, and following that road isn’t all about talent – it’s about mindset. Successful students must believe they are capable of the difficult academic work and then back up the belief with results. They also must believe they can and do belong in this group that encompasses scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

As an associate professor teaching physics and astronomy at a two-year college, I teach students who often have very different experiences and expectations than I did. How can what I now know, as an educator and a woman who made it through the process, help current STEM students succeed?

A new initiative at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College addresses this problem. “I Am STEM: Mindset and Belongingness in Underrepresented STEM Populations,” seeks to assist students in getting past the stumbling blocks to success. “I Am STEM” is funded by a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation. We will select 18 freshmen each academic year and support them as they progress through the first two years of their STEM studies.

The initiative will provide significant scholarships, but its main purpose is to assist students by helping them to think like scientists and engineers (STEM mindset) and feel they fit in the community of scientists and engineers (belongingness).

Why is this so important?

For years, experts in economics, business, government and the sciences have linked the need for more STEM graduates to the advancement of the U.S. economy and society. In addition to increasing the number of STEM students, the National Science Foundation seeks to strengthen the presence of underrepresented populations in STEM fields “to increase the vitality, creativity and global leadership of the U.S. STEM enterprise.”

Mindset and belongingness – words psychologists have used for decades – are strongly associated with student success. Mindset encompasses a person’s views on whether his or her abilities are set in stone or can be nurtured and increased. It also includes how a person approaches problem-solving and critical thinking. Belongingness is whether people see themselves as part of a group. Students who can picture themselves being a scientist are more likely to succeed than those who think of scientists as “they” or “them.”

The road is particularly bumpy for women and minorities.

“Women and minorities are even less likely to persist in a STEM field major during college than are male and non-minority students,” reports a 2010 study by Wake Forest University associate professor Amanda L. Griffith.

I can see why. I’ve been there. Though I was internally and externally motivated while in school, I was the only woman in my undergraduate physics program. It would have been helpful to have had peers like me.

Many students – not just two-year college students – come to college without the critical thinking skills they need to effectively pursue STEM coursework or the understanding of what it will take to be a STEM professional.

To succeed, these students need guidance to think and act like scientists and engineers. Education research suggests that “institutions with a focus on undergraduate education are more successful in retaining their undergraduate [STEM] majors,” reports Griffith.  At two-year colleges, where research is not a mainstay, faculty can target individual student learning and be a catalyst for success.

If we picture college education as a ladder, the first rung of a STEM degree can be high. Students must reach the rung on their own merits, but activities that allow students to develop cognitive and non-cognitive skills – as our initiative will provide – can create additional footholds. Once the students make it over that big step with these footholds, they are poised to climb the rest of the ladder with the tools they have acquired.

After all, even Albert Einstein said, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.