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As STEM grows, so do efforts to help students succeed

Ashleigh Gonzales and 3-D tactile boards
May 08, 2015

The number of STEM students enrolled at Arizona State University has dramatically increased in the past 12 years, as has the number of students graduating in STEM fields.

Behind the numbers, however, is something of a revolution in teaching, in personalizing education and in focus as ASU tries to do its part to fill the national need of more science-based graduates.

For ASU, the numbers alone are startling. ASU students enrolled in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields have risen from 10,896 in 2005 to 22,404 in 2014 – a 105 percent increase. STEM graduates have risen as well, from 1,893 in the 2004-2005 academic year to 4,242 in 2013-2014 – a 124 percent increase.

ASU has long had strengths in the STEM fields and over the years has put together a wide range of programs that not only attract students to ASU, but also reach out to middle schools to fuel a spark of interest in STEM. Once students get here, there are programs that help them feel more at home rather than adrift at a very large university.

Along the way, several students have responded to the programs in place and have excelled in their own ways in STEM.

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But ASU experts also agree that it is not enough. More will need to be done to attract students into the field, especially reaching back to middle schools, and more needs to be done to help boost the number of women and minorities in STEM.

“I want students to love science as I love science,” said Binaben Vanmali, director of the Arizona Science Education Collaborative at ASU. Looking at the national needs means they will need a vast number of such science-loving students.

“Some projections suggest that by 2025 we are going to need 1 million STEM workers,” Vanmali said. “We are nowhere near that. Do we need to increase STEM students? Absolutely. Are we doing enough? We can always do more.”

Shrinking ASU

ASU has done a great job at recruiting top-level STEM students, but once they get here the size of ASU is an issue, said Tirupalavanam Ganesh, assistant dean of engineering education in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“We have found that for students to be successful there needs to be a lot of peer mentoring and peer networking,” Ganesh explained. He said every first-year student in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering is assigned a peer mentor. And there are undergraduate teaching assistants who support learning by interacting with their near peers.

“There also needs to be access to faculty and staff. We have great examples of that with our dean, who meets more than 400 students each year to share a meal with them,” he added.

Making ASU smaller helps students in many ways. In engineering it is done by extending invitations to incoming freshman to meet their classmates and prospective faculty in casual settings, allowing them to bond, over a meal or a campfire at the E2 Camp, where shifts of up to 200 incoming freshman and several faculty and deans head up to a northern pine forest for a couple of days.

“They come, they let their hair down, it's informal, they make friends and do some engineering activities,” said Jim Middleton, professor of engineering education and director of the Center for Research on Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology. “Then, when they come back in the fall, they see people they recognize. It really makes the university much smaller and makes them comfortable.”

Making the university smaller is also what’s in play in the School of Life Sciences, where professor Kevin McGraw places up to 70 students per year in paid research positions in laboratories on and off campus.

“The students certainly value the wages, but the personal relationships they build with faculty or graduate-student/postdoc mentors come back over time to become one of the most cherished aspects of the program,” said McGraw, who is the director of undergraduate research in life sciences. “These kids get the attention of a world-class expert in research. They connect with that individual and get personalized attention and a real unique growth opportunity.”

“Our retention is tremendous,” he added. “We have more than a 95 percent success rate to graduation with our students.”

Engineering’s Middleton said another way of downsizing ASU is capping freshman engineering classes at 40 students, allowing more student-teacher interactions. They also introduce freshman to their prospective fields in an interdisciplinary fashion, teaching them life skills along the way.

“They are creating projects that mimic what they’d be doing as a senior,” he said. “We get them involved in the engineering process, to create, to solve problems using the math and science they bring with them. And they do it in groups.”

“They are doing engineering from day one,” Ganesh added.

Reaching to K-12

The hands-on aspect of research can help break down some of the mystique of STEM classes and majors, and it helps fuel the desire to learn more.

McGraw takes one of his ongoing research projects on the road, to local elementary, middle and high schools. He and a graduate student, Pierce Hutton, do some of their fieldwork on finches at Kyrene-Altadena Middle School and Madison Park Middle School in Phoenix and at Estrella Foothills High School in Goodyear. The students help McGraw and Hutton monitor the color and health of birds over space and time and track citywide influences on the birds.

“The young kids get to learn about and see the birds, and become more aware of the wildlife around them,” McGraw said. “With middle schoolers you can get them to really think about the studies we’re doing and what our findings mean. The high schoolers often come up with their own independent research ideas, and they help us gather data.”

He added that the high school class had ideas on measuring skull size, beak shape and morphology, and his middle school students were trying to connect cities, pesticides and metals contamination to the relative health of wild birds. 

Demystifying STEM is also being applied to K-12 teachers and ASU non-science majors in the Reforming Science Education for Teachers and Students (ReSETS) program run by Vanmali.  

ReSETS creates new 100-level transdisciplinary general-studies science courses that focus on building science literacy among ASU non-science major undergraduates in general, and pre-service STEM teachers in particular.

“We want to provide a way for pre-service science teachers to learn science content in a cohesive and engaging way that is non-threatening,” said Vanmali, who leads the effort. “One reason why we don’t have a lot of K-12 STEM teachers is that a lot of people who go into teaching are intimidated by the idea of teaching science.”

ReSETS courses present science in a thematic approach rather than a traditional science approach. With courses like “Crime Scene Investigations” and “Energy and Everyday Life,” the courses try to draw in those who are not scientifically inclined.

“The goal is to increase the STEM teacher pipeline, increasing knowledge and increasing science literacy,” said Vanmali, who will be hosting more than 350 K-12 science teachers at ASU on June 8 for the third annual Arizona STEM Clubs conference. “We have a big focus here on retention and success of our STEM majors, but we also focus on pre-service science teachers and the non-majors, because we want everybody to be scientifically literate.”

The goal of any of the STEM efforts on campus and off is to instill a passion for science in students and STEM teachers.

“If we can offer those relevant things, whatever they are that make children passionate – socially relevant, personally relevant – and connected to their lives and their families, then you can potentially change the STEM slump in middle school settings,” Ganesh said. 

“If you find ways to actually help students understand why they need to know it (science), show them how they can discover knowledge and use it, then you are more likely to help them remember it and help them to use it again later in life.”