Building Student Interest in Science

One university's experiment involves English composition, better advising and living in a science-themed dorm.
April 19, 2005

Like many institutions, Central Washington University has historically struggled to retain students in the sciences. More often than not, entering students who expressed interest in studying science, technology or mathematics would, by the end of their second year, drift off into other disciplines.

The problem, Central Washington officials surmised, was that the university was not reaching students early enough in their time there with opportunities to do research, a cohesive approach that incorporated science across the curriculum, and good academic advising that made students aware of the significant requirements needed to major in a science field.

"Once we get them into majors, they tend to stay there, but our greatest attrition is in the freshman and sophomore years," says Lisa L. Ely, chair of the department of geological sciences at the Ellensburg, Wash., public university.

With the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation, Central Washington created its Science Talent Expansion Program, which Ely described last weekend at the American Association of Colleges and Universities' conference on "Pedagogies of Engagement," in a Washington, D.C., suburb.

Now in its second year, the program puts about 40 freshmen a year through an intensive Science Seminar that, among other things, lets them fulfill the university's English composition requirement in a course that focuses on science topics, puts a science faculty member in charge of their advising, and allows them to live in a "learning community" with other peers interested in studying science. As sophomores, students can apply or a paid internship with a faculty scientist to help design and work on a research project.

Although the university is just beginning to collect and analyze data on the program's results, early returns seem good, Ely says: Of the 41 students who started in the Freshman Seminar program this fall, 33 have remained and are on track to major in science.

From Ely's standpoint, the program's success depends on several key factors: linkages with the rest of the curriculum; better advising; integration with students' living arrangements; and research participation.

Science across the curriculum. Central Washington professors knew they'd have an easier time keeping undergraduates interested in science if the students were thinking about science outside the lab, too. So they planned all along to find ways to incorporate science into other parts of the freshman curriculum. But their grant proposal to the NSF didn't even mention what has become the most direct form of crossdisciplinarity, which Ely calls a "bit of serendipity."

One of the instructors in the university's required English composition course had, because of her own personal interests, been "gearing her course to science topics anyway, whether students were interested in them or not," says Ely. So "we joined forces," giving the instructor a class of students who were expressly interested in science and participants participants in the Freshman Science Seminar an English course that reinforced their other interests. "They're writing about things in the English class that they're doing in the science classes," Ely says.

Ely notes, however, that one of the problems with serendipity is that one can't count on it, and that Central Washington is likely to face faculty opposition if and when it tries to expand the "science across the curriculum" concept to a significantly broader group of students.

Advising. All freshmen at Central Washington take a one-credit course in which they work with a faculty member/adviser who helps them plot their academic path at the university. Traditionally, students get assigned an adviser more or less randomly, and those who might be interested in majoring in a scientific discipline sometimes find out, too late, that their advisers have not informed them adequately about the substantial requirements they must fulfill for most science majors. "If you wait until junior year to start fulfilling science major requirements," Ely says, it may be too late.

The scientists who advise students in the Freshman Science Seminar "help them get on the right road," Ely says.

Housing. Students in the STEP program can join Central Washington's Natural Science Living Learning Community, a "community of students living together in a single residence hall and sharing an interest in the natural sciences." The program benefits from the fact that the dormitory in which the science community was placed happens to be one of the nicest on the campus, so being a part of it is "seen as a special thing." 

As with the English composition instructor interested in the sciences, breaks have gone Central Washington's way in helping to make this program successful, but some elements of it could be difficult to replicate or expand.

Undergraduate research. Giving sophomores the opportunity to help professors with their research has proven very popular (with students, at least), although Ely acknowledges that many second-year students "don't have the content background to contribute" to such work in truly meaningful ways.

But whether they can produce publishable resaerch is "almost a secondary thing," she says, as the mere experience of "walking around in lab coats and goggles" in many cases helps build students' interest in and fascination with the scientific enterprise.

Going forward, Ely says Central Washington faces potential hurdles as it considers whether to expand the program to involve more students, including the challenge of getting faculty members to invest the time and energy (How does the university attract them now? "By paying them and begging them," Ely says.).


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