Using Multidisciplinary Research Experiences to Enhance STEM Learning through Undergraduate, Team-Based, Summer Research Projects for At-Risk Students

Using Multidisciplinary Research Experiences to Enhance STEM Learning through Undergraduate, Team-Based, Summer Research Projects for At-Risk Students

Jennifer Yantz (Middle Tennessee State University, USA), Brittany D. Smith (Middle Tennessee State University, USA), Ginger Holmes Rowell (Middle Tennessee State University, USA), Thomas Cheatham (Middle Tennessee State University, USA), Donald Nelson (Middle Tennessee State University, USA), D. Christopher Stephens (Middle Tennessee State University, USA) and Elaine Bouldin Tenpenny (Middle Tennessee State University, USA)
Copyright: © 2015 |Pages: 23
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-6375-6.ch008


Undergraduate research can be one of the most important and influential learning experiences during a student's college career (Light, 2001). Significant retention value is achieved both through one-on-one contact with a faculty mentor (Campbell, 1997; Jacobi, 1991) and by interaction with peers in a learning community (Johnson, 2001). Colleges and universities are using undergraduate research experiences to help improve student retention, graduation, and success in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). However, undergraduate research is frequently reserved for the best and brightest students who have achieved junior or senior class status. This case study describes a team-based research experience designed for first-year, at-risk undergraduate students. For this project, the term “at-risk” is defined to be first-time, full-time freshman declared STEM majors with a weak mathematics background as measured by having an ACT-Mathematics sub score of 19 to 23, inclusive. In particular, this case study focuses on the multidisciplinary nature of some of the research projects and the benefits for the students in terms of confidence, depth of learning in STEM, and progress in understanding the scientific process.
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Setting The Stage

Despite the efforts to reform K-12 education, many students who enroll in public colleges and universities are underprepared in mathematics and science. According to ACT data from 2010 – 2012 ACT-tested graduating class (n = 1,167,221), one in ten students expressed an interest in a career from a STEM field (ACT, 2013). Of those students interested in a STEM education, only 57% met the mathematics benchmark score of 22 and only 41% met the science benchmark score of 24 (the science benchmark as of 2013 is now 23). The ACT benchmarks are minimum scores that predict student success in first-year, credit-bearing college courses. Meeting the benchmarks indicates only a 75% chance of the student earning a grade of C or better in first-year courses corresponding to the tested subject area (ACT, 2013). This data would suggest that the solution for increasing the number of STEM graduates lies not in increasing recruitment of STEM majors but in supporting the academic success of underprepared students who are already interested in a STEM career.

The lack of students’ academic preparation has been attributed in part to the breadth of coverage given to science and mathematics topics in secondary education curricula (Kay & Greenhill, 2011). The emphasis on test scores has led to broad curricula where students are barraged with facts and information but are rarely given the opportunity to explore a topic in depth or discover important relationships and ideas on their own. Schwartz et. al. (2008) studied 8,310 students who were enrolled in introductory biology, chemistry, and/or physics courses at 55 randomly selected colleges and universities. Students who reported having studied one science topic in depth, for at least one month, in their secondary education were found to earn higher grades in all introductory science classes in their post-secondary education. The researchers found that studying a breadth of topics in secondary education settings did not correlate with improved grades in introductory post-secondary science classes.

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