Promoting Academic Excellence in STEM: The Evolving Roles of Learning Communities
Date: February 15, 2017 (event)
Those of us who work in higher education understand the importance of student retention and success, and that it is not to be taken for granted. Students come from a variety of backgrounds and thus face a variety of obstacles to successfully completing college, many of which have nothing to do with what’s happening in the classroom. Living and learning communities are one way that universities have addressed this multi-faceted challenge.
The University of Michigan has several learning communities, two of which are explicitly STEM focused, though only one is dedicated to making STEM fields more accessible to an underrepresented group (Women in Science and Engineering Residence Program). As an innovative research university, we are always looking to learn from successful projects, one such being a learning community model found at the University of California, Riverside (UCR).
Dr. Michael McKibben is a divisional associate dean for student academic affairs at UCR. As an associate professor of geology, he works in the university’s College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (CNAS), the university’s largest college. Although much of the model appears to be translatable from UCR to U-M, the campuses contain demographic and academic differences worth noting.
Because peoples’ identities intersect in various ways and present unique life experiences as well as obstacles, Dr. McKibben concedes that there will not be just one effort toward student success, but rather a “constellation of interventions”.
Unlike many of the learning communities at U-M, the learning communities at UCR aren’t based on residence, but rather on majors, and also entail certain academic courses. However, like the living-learning communities at U-M, Dr. McKibben’s learning community also focuses on building soft skills and life skills.
The UCR learning community model consists of a one-hour “faculty discovery” seminar in which students get to know faculty on a more personal basis. Syllabi can vary between faculty, but for example, Dr. McKibben uses his seminar for the students to explore careers and develop more generally.
The model also consists of a one-hour academic advising seminar in which academic advisors (who stay with the students as long as they’re in the major) help students navigate the “nuts and bolts” of being successful both academically and personally. Dr. McKibben noted that many students are away from home for the first time in their lives, so even things as simple as financial literacy can help students mitigate personal issues and focus positive attention on academics.
Students in the learning community also have the option of participating in peer-tutoring and research opportunities. Dr. McKibben noted that ideal peer tutors don’t need a 4.0 GPA. In fact, he said, a more moderate GPA (like 3.2) indicates that students may have faced academic hurdles and thus are better-attuned to some challenges that mentees are experiencing.
Additionally, students are able to participate in college outreach programs. One such example is SISTERS -- Success in Science & Technology: Engagement with Role Models. In this program, women do K-12 outreach to foster a pipeline for girls to STEM. The women mentor the girls in not only STEM, but also in issues that are relevant to young girls, such as bullying and self-esteem issues. A student from the audience commented that she probably would not be in STEM if it weren’t for a similar program she had gone through.
What has been the impact?
Understanding programmatic impact is helpful, not just to understand if the project goals are being achieved, but also to solicit buy-in from school administrators and peers, and for grant-getting purposes. The following are some impacts that this learning community model has affected over five years:
- 56% graduation rate for those in the learning community.
- 34% graduation rate for those who entered the lottery to enter the learning community, but didn’t win the lottery.
- 17% graduation rate for those who didn’t enter the lottery for the learning community.
Q: How would you get buy-in for this program?
A: One reason the UCR learning community is successful is because it went through a five-year pilot with a smaller faculty investment. It’s remained successful because the deans have endorsed it. Faculty are also incentivized because they receive course releases for participating.
Q: Many first-generation college students need to work and can’t afford to volunteer their time doing peer-mentoring. How do you compensate your student peer-mentors?
A: The student peer-mentors are paid $15/hour, as mandated by the governor of California.
Q: In my personal experience, peer-mentor relationships have fallen apart as the semester goes on and the mentor gets busy. How do you address that?
A: Mandate scheduling so that the relationship is a time commitment that mentors must consider throughout the semester. Additionally, recruit committed and knowledgeable mentors by asking for nominations from faculty.
We look forward to continuing this conversation on how to support student pipelines to STEM!
McKibben, Michael (2017). “Promoting Academic Excellence in STEM: The Evolving Roles of Learning Communities”.
Office of Budget and Planning Handout Highlights Campus Diversity <http://obp.umich.edu/wp-content/uploads/pubdata/factsfigures/2016_DEI_Infographic.pdf>
Sponsored by Growing STEM: Pipelines, Collaborations and Pedagogies for Diversity & Inclusion at Michigan with support from the College of Engineering; LSA; National Center for Institutional Diversity; the Office of Health Equity and Inclusion; Center for Educational Outreach; REBUILD; the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT)