Projects Try to Prepare Students To Succeed at STEM in College

By Sean Cavanagh — September 12, 2008 7 min read
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When faculty members at the State University of New York at Albany were searching for answers as to why so few undergraduates were completing degrees in science and mathematics, they looked at students’ struggles right out of the gate.

Many freshmen, they found, were flunking or dropping out of the introductory biology, chemistry, and calculus courses that are the foundations of those studies.

University officials are now moving to help those college newcomers with increased tutoring and mentoring. But they also plan to begin earlier, by counseling high school students and families about the potential benefits of a math or science major—and what the expectations are for studying those subjects at the college level.

Dropping Out of STEM

A new federally funded program at the State University of New York at Albany seeks to increase students’ preparation for, and persistence in, college-level math and science. Figures for the university show that freshmen and other new students struggle mightily in those courses upon reaching the university.


NOTE: Attrition rate and enrollments are for the 2003-2006 years. the figures include students who drop out or receive a D grade or lower.


The New York university is just one of many postsecondary institutions that have sought to forge stronger bonds with K-12 schools in their communities as a strategy for increasing the flow of students majoring in math and science and completing degrees.

Those efforts include not only outreach to students and parents, but also preparing students academically for college math and science, recruitment programs, and the immersion of high schoolers in independent, postsecondary-style research projects.

The Albany university has received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create the new Center for Achievement, Retention, and Student Success, which will be housed on campus. The university’s goal is to support programs that have shown promise to date in reducing attrition in math and science studies, such as more intensive tutoring in math for new undergraduates, said Rabi A. Musah, an associate professor of organic chemistry who will help direct the program.

But the center will also make a new attempt to reach out to the K-12 community. It plans to launch a summer camp in which rising high school seniors in Albany and their parents will be invited onto campus to learn about college-level math and science, and careers in those areas.

“We’re going to try to work with counselors and administrators, and try to identify students who may not be at the top of their class,” Ms. Musah said. “Most of the [center’s work] is focused on getting kids through the transition to college.”

Public, Private Support

The center is one of many projects across the country funded through an NSF program that focuses on increasing the movement from high school to college of students through the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. Known as “STEP,” which stands for STEM Talent Expansion Program, it funds about $26 million in projects on two- and four-year campuses across the country.

Projects funded through that NSF program can begin in college or late in high school, and last up to five years, said Russell Pimmel, director of the step effort.

The federal government invests heavily in projects aimed at increasing the pool of available STEM talent. It spends roughly $3 billion a year on STEM education across agencies. About $943 million is devoted to undergraduate education, particularly recruitment and retention of students in math and science.

In addition, it spends another $574 million at the K-12 level, in areas such as teacher training and increasing student engagement and interest in STEM subjects. Critics say there is scant evidence that those programs are effective in increasing student achievement or enthusiasm for science and math. (“Federal Projects’ Impact on STEM Remains Unclear,” March 27, 2008.)

State governments have also expanded their efforts in recent years to forge stronger links between schools and colleges and encourage STEM study. Elected officials argue that investing in that area is necessary to create a workforce with the skills necessary to compete in technical fields.

Corporate and philanthropic entities also play a major role in forging stronger links between schools and colleges in encouraging students to stick with science and math. For instance, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, in Chevy Chase, Md., has awarded an estimated $750 million in grants over the past 20 years to both strengthen science instruction at colleges and lure more students into those studies and careers.

The medical institute has provided funding not only to large research universities, but to historically black colleges and universities, liberal arts colleges, and religious institutions. That money has supported the training of current and future teachers, funded academic-preparation programs, and sought to raise student enthusiasm for math and science.

Reaching Out to Schools

One of the science programs funded by the medical institute is run by Georgetown University in Washington. The program recruits cohorts of 50 students in cycles from Brown Middle School, in the nation’s capital, and arranges to have them take part in academic programs covering math, science, English literacy, and other subjects for four hours every Saturday during the school year, as well as during an extensive summer program.

“Once they get here, they understand how committed the program is to them,” said Joseph H. Neale, a biology professor at Georgetown, who directs the program, funded with a $1.8 million grant. As a result, “on Saturday mornings, they show up,” he said.

A study of the first cohort of students taking part in the Georgetown program showed that 35 out of 50 completed it, with many of the losses resulting from students leaving the area, Mr. Neale said. All of the 35 students finished high school and went to college. Some struggled in their postsecondary studies, so Georgetown is now focusing more intently on the bridge between high school and college, Mr. Neale said.

Many college math and science faculty members are used to covering course material that is far more challenging than high school content. But those scholars nonetheless have a strong interest in working with K-12 students, and have special insight into their academic strengths and shortcomings in science, said David Asai, the program director for pre-college and undergraduate science at the institute.

College faculty members work with many students who are well prepared for postsecondary material—and many others who are not, he said.

“There is a huge range in what [those students] know, and what they don’t know,” said Mr. Asai, who taught biology at the college level. “We see that our challenge is to make them even better.”

Projects for College Prep

Daniel L. Wulff, a professor of biological sciences at SUNY-Albany, sees that same motivation in the postsecondary math and science community. He directs the Science Research in the High School Program, an effort that pairs college scholars with high school students working on independent, multiyear research projects.

Participating students enroll in a three-year course at their high schools, in which they immerse themselves in original scientific research on a topic of their choosing. They receive guidance from high school teachers and mentoring from college researchers or professionals working in fields relevant to their topic.

The program draws students from a broad range of ability levels; many high-achieving students have said their schedules are too packed with advanced classes to take part, Mr. Wulff noted. The project, which is not connected to the new science and math center at the Albany university, is a fixture in 110 high schools across New York state, Mr. Wulff said.

A key element of the program is that students are expected to take the initiative in working with college faculty at every step, from making initial contact with scholars to working with them to organize the project. When high school students approach academic faculty directly and ask for their help, scholars tend to see it as “a form of flattery that’s hard to refuse,” Mr. Wulff observed.

Recent projects have spanned many topics and scientific disciplines, from the behavior of mosquitoes to a linguistic study of Spanish-speaking infants to a scientific approach to determining whether the media is biased in covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The program gave Kendra L. Potasiewicz a glimpse of college-level science at an early age. Ms. Potasiewicz created a system for “spoofing” a fingerprint sensor, security devices found on computers or buildings, to see if they could be fooled. One of her adult mentors was a fingerprint expert with the state police.

The biggest benefit of the program is that it steels high schoolers to work on their own and face demanding in-class expectations—both of which are challenges they will face in college-level math and science study, said Ms. Potasiewicz, now a 19-year-old engineering and management major at Clarkson University, in Potsdam, N.Y.

“The class is a lot of work, and a lot of it you set for yourself,” she said. “It teaches you how to talk to people professionally. It gives you a sense of responsibility and develops you mentally and scholastically.”

Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 2008 edition of Education Week as College-K-12 Projects Aim to Patch STEM Pipeline


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