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New research shows promise for success of underrepresented scholars in STEM

Pilot program could lead to a new paradigm for inclusive excellence, increasing numbers of graduate scholars in STEM fields
24 October 2019
The Millennium Scholars Program Cohort 1. Credit: Nate Follmer

With the goal of preparing scholars from underrepresented groups to succeed in graduate and professional programs, Penn State, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), partnered to develop undergraduate programs aimed at increasing retention and academic performance of historically racially underrepresented undergraduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.  

In a new study published in the journal Science, the authors describe promising early results in expanding diversity and inclusion in STEM by leveraging lessons learned from successful programs with immersive interinstitutional partnering. This approach could serve as a model for other universities with different populations of students, sizes, and cultures.  

The interinstitutional approach was based on the Meyerhoff Scholars Program (MYS) at UMBC, a successful program with a 30-year history of increasing retention and academic performance of underrepresented scholars who have a high likelihood of continuing to pursue a doctorate in a STEM field. The authors found that the MYS model worked at Penn State and UNC, institutions which were much different than UMBC, with student outcomes that immediately matched or exceeded MYS. This model could provide a new paradigm for inclusive excellence in STEM.

The Millennium Scholars Program at Penn State and the Chancellors Science Scholars Program at UNC were established and designed to replicate or adapt all the major components of MYS, including establishment of key administrators and senior faculty as program champions; allocation of space and funding for staff, scholarships, activities, and assessment; recruitment of diverse staff, targeted student recruitment, and cohort building, including an intensive summer bridge program; early placement in research labs and summer internships; intensive academic advising and counseling; community service; and regular program evaluations.

Historical records of STEM student demographics, academic performance, and retention at both Penn State and UNC identified disparities for racially underrepresented students. These findings were critical drivers for broadening support and instituting new programs.

“This is encouraging progress in establishing a model for institutional support that opens pathways for underrepresented scholars to achieve the highest levels of success in STEM fields,” said Eric J. Barron, Penn State President and co-author of the study. “These talented young individuals are future leaders in academia and industry who will play a vital role in advancing our economy and quality of life.”

Student applicants to all three programs were selected based on academic merit, STEM research, and social justice interests, as well as interviews. At Penn State, the Millennium Scholars Program cohort received full tuition and other support. Most students on all three campuses majored in biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, physics, statistics, or a combination of these areas. The Millennium Scholars Program at Penn State included majors from five STEM colleges: Engineering, Information Sciences and Technology, Earth and Mineral Sciences, Agricultural Sciences, and the Eberly College of Science.

“The Millennium Scholars Program is designed to support high-achieving undergraduate STEM students in a way that will ultimately prepare them to continue on to complete a Ph.D. in a STEM field,” said Amy Freeman, director of the Millennium Scholars Program and co-author of the study. “The cycle to complete this long-term goal is about eight years and the Millennium Scholars Program addresses the first half of that journey, which includes completion of the B.S., excellent academic performance, and a high level of research early on. To date, we have graduated two classes, most of whom have continued on to enroll in graduate programs. We are committed to assisting students who have both the passion and the ability to advance the frontiers of knowledge and change the world.”

The university partnership included several weeks of faculty and staff training at UMBC, with additional training at UNC and Penn State. Faculty and staff from the Penn State and UNC programs were embedded in portions of the UMBC program student selection and summer bridge events at UMBC. Staff also met biweekly to discuss the program; team members met monthly to develop and implement evaluation plans; and faculty leadership met regularly to address administrative goals. Summer retreats were held that involved participants from all three campuses.  

To see if the programs were working, student outcomes were compared with institutionally matched, nonprogram student samples identified based on similar ethnicity, gender, academic interest, and academic credentials. In all cases, average cohort STEM retention and average cohort GPAs for STEM-retained students were substantially higher for program participants regardless of ethnicity or gender. GPAs of female program participants were also considerably higher than those of female nonparticipants. Underrepresented program participants also had a substantial GPA benefit compared to matched noncohort underrepresented students.

“Cultivating talent and promoting the full inclusion of excellence across STEM at Penn State is the focus, and the early results highlight that this program is working,” said Mary Beth Williams, senior associate dean of instruction and curricula in the Eberly College of Science and co-author of the study. “These outcomes are a positive indicator that show that we are moving in the right direction.”

Important factors in the success of the program included commitment to the entire Meyerhoff Scholars Program model, including foundational program elements such as the summer bridge program and community building; sufficient and sustained administrative support; recruitment of full-time program staff; faculty and staff training; and faculty participation.  

Students in the cohorts benefited from interacting with program staff who had similar experiences navigating issues of ethnicity and culture. Faculty were a key part of program activities, including student recruitment, summer bridge programming, fundraising efforts, program administration, and workshops to raise awareness about ethnicity and gender issues in STEM. Faculty engaged students starting in their first year and provided research experiences throughout the program. Faculty also explored pedagogical practices that appear to positively affect students’ learning and academic performance.  

“This program reflects Penn State values and the importance we place on equality and opportunity at our University,” said Barron. “With the proven success of this program at UMBC, and the early findings here at Penn State and UNC, we are excited for the opportunity to expand the program at Penn State and help scale it nationally.”

This work received financial and program support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. 

This article originally appeared on Penn State News on April 25, 2019.