Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: A Four-Dimensional Framework

Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: A Four-Dimensional Framework

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-6341-9.ch006


Improving STEM education in the U.S. stands to address one of the nation's priorities, increasing the STEM workforce. Rural students are a previously untapped source of potential; yet, these students lack STEM experiences, engagement, and scaffolding to stay motivated to complete an undergraduate program in STEM. Motivation is a key element for rural student interest and persistence in STEM; however, these students also must develop certain knowledge and skills to succeed as STEM professionals. The authors propose a model, Improving Undergraduate STEM Education Framework, as a means to maintain motivation and prepare rural students for the rigors of a STEM major/career. In this chapter, the four-dimensional framework is unveiled along with examples of Project Engage's efforts to address each dimension.
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Through the support of a U. S. Department of Education Minority Science and Engineering Program grant, Project Engage programs and activities were designed and applied to achieve the ultimate goal of improving rural undergraduate STEM programs’ capacity of retaining undergraduate students in STEM majors, cultivating STEM talents, and producing motivated and dedicated STEM graduates. These programs and activities introduced in previous chapters include a Strategic Mentoring Program, Professional Exploration Trips, Competitive STEM Events, Invited STEM Speakers, Team Building Training, Career Exploration Course, Career Panel Discussion, Undergraduate Research, Sisters of the Academy “Priming the Pipeline,” High School Student Outreach, Invention Convention and STEM Challenge. Based on its experience in these programs and activities, Project Engage developed a four-dimensional practice-and research-based framework that can be used to guide future efforts of improving undergraduate STEM education in rural areas. The four dimensions of this Improving Undergraduate STEM Education Framework are: motivating, experiencing, engaging, and scaffolding (See Figure 1).

Figure 1.

The Improving Undergraduate STEM Education Framework


The “Leaky” Pipeline

Using the analogy of a “STEM pipeline” representing the pathway from K-12 education to college STEM majors to future STEM careers, recent efforts have focused on increasing the flow of students through the pipeline. Compounding the problem of increasing the numbers of students going into the STEM pipeline are “leaks” out of the pipeline. Current research has identified such “leaks” including: 1) students increasingly losing interest in STEM as they matriculate from elementary to middle to high school; 2) students who graduate from college with a STEM degree, but find employment in another field; 3) unfavorable working environments in STEM for groups such as minorities and females, and; 4) lack of motivation to preserve in STEM. Leaks in the STEM pipeline result in a lowered flow of students out of college STEM fields and into the STEM workforce (Versypt & Versypt, 2013). There is a need to increase the flow into the STEM pipeline, especially for diverse and underrepresented groups. Rural school districts represent more than half of all operating regular school districts (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013). Due to the large number of rural schools, focus should be turned towards rural students, an underrepresented group, as an untapped source of students to increase the supply of students into the STEM pipeline (Versypt & Versypt, 2013).

Attrition rates for undergraduate students in STEM areas remain high (Tinto, 1993; Wilson et al, 2012) and less than 50% of the undergraduate students entering as STEM majors are actually graduating with a STEM degree (Hayes, Whalen & Cannon, 2009; Wilson et al., 2012). Black STEM students are even less likely to persist in STEM majors than white students (Flynn, 2016). The situation in rural areas is even worse. Educational environments in rural areas are characterized by: high levels of poverty; less available cultural capital and consequent lack of enrichment activities outside of the regular school curriculum; lack of qualified STEM teachers; lack of role models of successful STEM professionals; and inadequate awareness of STEM career opportunities. Growing up in such an educational environment, rural STEM majors are not well prepared for academic success in the learning of their STEM disciplines and lack motivation to complete their STEM degree and pursue a STEM career after graduation. Increasing the retention of rural students in STEM majors and preparing them for STEM careers has a direct and positive impact by increasing the potential for future financial earnings, but also directly benefits the nation two-fold: by supplying the STEM pipeline with a new source of “flow” and increasing the diversity of the STEM workforce (Flynn, 2016). Project Engage’s four dimensional Improving Undergraduate STEM Education Framework, adopting a comprehensive approach to STEM education, was developed to address the needs of rural students, particularly rural minority students in support of STEM degrees and ultimately preparation for STEM careers.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Project Engage: A comprehensive, capacity-building program which provides strategic mentoring, career exploration, as well as knowledge and skills to prepare undergraduate STEM majors, specifically minority students from rural areas for future STEM careers.

STEM Self-Efficacy: A student’s belief in his/her knowledge and skills related to success in science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics.

More Knowledgeable Other (MKO): Someone or something having a better understanding or a higher ability level regarding a particular task, process, or concept. In the case of Project Engage, mentors, career counselors, and STEM faculty serve the role of MKOs for the undergraduate STEM majors.

Authentic Learning: Hands-on activities where students learn by solving real world STEM problems.

Task Authenticity: Undertakings similar to STEM professionals. Provides students with the opportunity to develop professional STEM skills.

Experiencing: Participating in STEM activities.

Impact Authenticity: Experiences in social contexts. Students realizing their potential to impact society through STEM professions.

Contextual Authenticity: Experiences in real world STEM environments.

Intrinsic Motivation: Performing an action or behavior for the sake of enjoyment.

Scaffolding: Providing a framework for supporting student success.

Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD): The level of cognitive development that the learner can obtain with the guidance of teachers or in collaboration with peers.

Experiential Learning: Learning acquired through hands-on, authentic experiences.

Motivating: Stimulating interest in or enthusiasm for doing something.

Engaging: Capturing the attention of students.

Personal/Individual Authenticity: Integrating cultural values into students’ learning experiences.

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