There’s a national need to improve retention and graduation rates among underrepresented and first-generation students in STEM. At Lehigh University, we’re implementing institutional changes to meet this goal with the aid of grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).
We want to contribute to a technologically advanced, diverse workforce by implementing multiple evidence-based practices that enhance STEM retention and graduation rates. In the longer term, we plan to scale the most successful practices to the full STEM community at Lehigh.
Through the HHMI award we received in 2014, we’ve been able to set up two programs to help meet this aim: the Rapidly Accelerated Research Experience (RARE) and BioConnect.
RARE is a pre-admission-to-graduation, four-year STEM immersion program designed to build outstanding scientific and leadership skills in underrepresented students. BioConnect is a collaboration with community college partners to increase STEM graduation and transfer rates to four-year institutions.
Click on each program to reveal more details.
RARE admits 16 students/year and enrolls 64 participants spanning new students to seniors. The Program incorporates four dimensions we see as essential for success: an innovative curriculum, a strong sense of identity as part of a community of scholars, a way to address cultural issues which may contribute to low success and retention rates, and an understanding of the commitment required to excel in STEM.
Key components of the program include:
- Pre-orientation Camp: Students participate in a two-week camp prior to the start of the first year where they are introduced to life science and engineering, including responsible conduct of research; safety, the laboratory environment, the research enterprise, exposure to primary literature, and information technologies; sessions addressing campus culture, academics, resources, and support services; and social activities.
- Living/Learning Community: RARE students live in a residential community alongside other students interested in STEM, which is the most popular academically-themed residential community at Lehigh.
- Advising: The HHMI Program Directors serve as general advisors to the RARE students from the time they arrive on campus. When students declare their major, they’re assigned teams of two faculty and a successful junior or senior peer mentor.
- Curriculum and Related Academic Experiences: RARE features accelerated and extensive research engagement, including inquiry-based courses, interactions with active scholars, and summer research experiences as members of multidisciplinary teams as well as academic year participation in research groups.
- University-Wide Programs to Support Persistence: The HHMI Program Directors collaborate with the Student Access and Success Program and Office of Multicultural Affairs, both under the purview of The Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity. Other offices are within the Student Affairs division, including Academic Life & Student Transitions, Academic Transitions, The First Year Experience, and Center for Academic Success. Resources include study skills workshops, tutoring, and counseling.
Nationally, only 30 percent of students entering community colleges in STEM fields complete their degree and/or transfer to four-year institutions. BioConnect is improving persistence, graduation, and transfer rates in a partnership with Northampton Community College (NCC). To date, 68 percent of participants have graduated or gone on to four-year institutions while other participants remain in STEM fields at NCC.
Program goals are to:
- Identify students at NCC who may be candidates for transfer to Lehigh University or other four-year institutions.
- Enroll STEM students at NCC into inquiry-based, bioscience courses at Lehigh.
- Provide NCC students with stipends to work as team members in Lehigh faculty labs during the academic year and gain exposure to science and engineering research.
- Offer paid summer internships in the Biosystems Dynamics Summer Institute to provide intensive interdisciplinary research experience before transferring to Lehigh or another university.
The opportunity to increase diversity in STEM through RARE and BioConnect is a privilege and an obligation. The HHMI funds, program structure, and the curricular model implemented with prior awards from HHMI have helped attract underrepresented and first-generation students with very strong academic credentials and the drive to succeed.
Our original goal was an 80 percent graduation rate among students in the HHMI program. We are three years in, and retention is 98 percent.
What We’ve Learned
Implementing major changes in educational models takes years, substantial financial investment, institutional support at multiple levels, and a continuous commitment from program leadership.
Grants from HHMI have allowed faculty to redefine their roles by eliminating boundaries between STEM disciplines and between research and teaching functions. Courses are interdisciplinary, team taught in many cases, and incorporate project-based learning. Upper level courses integrate projects aligned with faculty research interests.
These changes have been central to our success in institutionalizing these curricular changes. Without HHMI funding and a willingness by Lehigh to invest side-by-side, we frankly could not have realized our objectives.
It hasn’t always been straightforward. As program directors since 2006 and for three grants from HHMI, we learned relentless advocacy is part of the job. It’s been more than 10 years, which means inevitable changes in senior administrators, new priorities, changes in the higher education landscape, and a responsibility for continuously educating new (and current) faculty about the importance of the program and its alignment with institutional goals.
And then there is sustainability. HHMI does not fund in perpetuity, which brings another obligation: fundraising. We need an endowment to assure continued support once the HHMI funding ends. We also will need a succession plan for program leadership.
Our plans are to broaden the impact of the HHMI program in two ways. One will be by applying the most effective strategies across the entire STEM population at Lehigh. The second will be to publish our findings. We are optimistic that principles and practices that emerge from our program can be adapted at any college or university.
*Photos provided by authors.