HHMI Awards $1.2 Million Grant to Rensselaer To Improve STEM Persistence

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has been awarded a five-year, $1.2 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) as part of an education grant program aimed at improving the persistence of students working toward a degree in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The grant will enable Rensselaer to build upon and expand a successful peer-based mentoring program that has improved outcomes for first-year STEM students.

Rensselaer was one of 203 research universities invited to participate in the HHMI 2014 “Sustaining Excellence in Science Education for Research Universities Competition,” and is one of only 37 universities to be awarded a grant. Over the past 25 years, HHMI has provided $5.1 million in support of Rensselaer initiatives, including major gifts in 1989, 1998, 2002, 2006, and the grant announced today.

“Our ability to remain competitive as a nation depends upon continued leadership in science and technology, and for this we must educate more young people in the STEM fields,” said Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer. “Rensselaer has a long tradition of developing innovative approaches to teaching, from a foundation in active learning practices to current initiatives in technology-enabled learning. With funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, we are pleased to leverage that tradition to develop strategies that can serve as a national model for improving STEM education.”

According to HHMI, 60 percent of all undergraduates who begin college intending to major in STEM fields do not complete a STEM baccalaureate degree. Even more alarming—because minorities represent a large and growing portion of the talent pool—is the loss of 80 percent from STEM of freshmen from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. For all students, most of the attrition occurs in the first two years of college, when students are taking introductory “gateway” courses. The HHMI competition is intended to develop effective strategies that will lead to significant and sustained improvement in persistence in science by all students, including those students who belong to groups underrepresented in science.

Wilfredo Colón, School of Science associate dean for research and principal investigator of the grant, said that Rensselaer is already well-positioned to support students in the STEM fields. In collaboration with the Office of Student Experience, Rensselaer offers an award-winning First-Year Experience program that assists undergraduate students in adapting to college. Colón also cited the Electronic Warning System that helps to identify students struggling in specific courses so they may receive assistance from the Advising & Learning Assistance Center, their academic adviser, and the class deans.

“Rensselaer has a persistence rate that is far above the national average, with an overall graduation rate of about 84 percent, and a STEM graduation rate of about 77 percent,” said Colón, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology. “And this is an opportunity to develop and improve some of the things that we do at Rensselaer into a model for improving STEM persistence at a national level.”

Rensselaer will target the grant to develop learning communities that enhance learning, teaching, mentoring, institutional climate, and culture. A major focus will be improving outcomes in Calculus 1, General Chemistry 1, and Physics 1, three “gatekeeper” courses that most engineering and science students confront in their first year.

In the first year of the grant, Rensselaer will build upon its “Math Mentors” program, which embeds peer mentoring into the first-year Calculus I course. As part of the program, students are divided into small groups, which meet weekly with an undergraduate student “math mentor” for informal sessions on solving problems and building time management and study skills necessary to success.

Colón said Rensselaer will bolster summer training sessions for student mentors, hold yearly “best practices” workshops and teaching seminars for faculty who teach the first-year STEM courses, and host community-building activities between students and faculty through the Office of Student Life.

“Math Mentors has been popular with students since its inception and it’s clear that the program has led to higher grades in Calculus 1. The program is an excellent candidate to improve STEM persistence across the Institute,” said Colón.

Rensselaer also will launch pilot mentoring programs—modeled on Math Mentors—for General Chemistry 1 and Physics 1, with a full-scale rollout planned for fall 2015.

“A majority of the students at Rensselaer take these courses, and they happen to be rather tough courses, so improving outcomes in these courses, as well as enhancing mentoring and support, is very likely to enhance persistence,” said Colón. “HHMI was looking for bold ideas grounded in evidence-based strategy. There’s no doubt that this will be a strong expansion of an already successful program that could have impact beyond Rensselaer.”