Rice University was recently awarded $1.9 million in new funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to extend strategies like the ones already used in their Beyond Traditional Borders (BTB) program, with the goal of retaining students in introductory courses related to science and engineering.
HHMI recently stated in a news release that fewer than half of the one million students that who seek to major in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) actually finish their baccalaureate. Minorities’ attrition rates are even more alarming, with 80% of STEM students giving up on their STEM major.
According to the vice president for science education at HHMI, Sean Carroll, STEM students who don’t get to the end of their major is a significant problem that the HHMI has consistently sought to address since the first days of the institution. For Carroll, “most of the attrition occurs in the first two years of college, when students are taking introductory “gateway” courses in chemistry, math and biology,” meaning that they don’t really ever get to work in science.
In spite of having an above average performance in retaining STEM students compared to the national average, Rice University also faces a 25% global attrition rate, according to Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Rice’s Stanley C. Moore Professor in Bioengineering and chair of the department. The number increases if you take in consideration women and minorities.
With the new Grant, Rice intends to apply the lessons learned learned from the 2006 BTB global health program, a study funded by HHMI and conducted by Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Maria Oden, another Bioengineering teacher.
The program was established by creating a “real-world formula,” where students worked towards finding solutions for the developing world problems. Four years after its launch, it had reached more than 10% of the university’s undergraduates, and in 2008, Rice created a minor in global health technologies (GLHT).
The program was recognized by Science magazine and by the National Academy of Engineering as a successful inquiry-based education program, and it has been associated will a lower attrition rate at the school. “We’ve found that STEM attrition rates are significantly lower among our global health students,” Rebecca Richards-Kortrum sustained, adding that the program brought “non-STEM students to change their majors to a STEM field.”
The goal now is to extend the BTB/GLHT model to Rice’s Wiess School of Natural Sciences and George R. Brown School of Engineering in order to retain its students until graduation.
As a result, based on the success of previous BTB programs, Rebecca Richard-Kortrum is leading the future programs that will be funded by the new HHMI grant.
“We plan to implement a series of project-based STEM courses for students intending to major in three large degree programs – chemistry, bioengineering, and biochemistry and cell biology,” said Janet Braam, Wiess Professor and chair of the department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology and one of the 25 team members responsible for this program execution.
With this strategie, Braam and Richards-Kortrum hope to improve STEM graduation rates by 10% in engineering and 15% in science.