Beyond 'Drill and Kill'

March 19, 2009

No offense to MIT or CalTech, but they can't by themselves solve the talent shortage in math-science disciplines. That's because the shortages projected are so great that colleges are being challenged to bring into the STEM fields students who would never apply to MIT and who would never think of a science or engineering career. For community colleges that serve disadvantaged areas, there are huge challenges involved in recruiting and graduating these students. Many have received inadequate educations in high schools and don't know anyone who works in science. The results, at many institutions, are low enrollments and low retention rates.

That's why a presentation by Eastfield College -- part of the Dallas County Community College District -- stood out at the meeting this week of the League for Innovation in the Community College, in Reno. Against the odds, Eastfield has had dramatic gains over a two-year period. With support from the National Science Foundation, Eastfield has increased enrollment in STEM majors by underrepresented groups (racial and ethnic minority groups, women, and people with disabilities) by 57 percent, to 2,855. But perhaps more impressive is that the college raised its very low retention rate (defined as the percentage of students who stay in the major until they graduate and/or transfer to a four-year institution) from 15 to 46 percent.

The key -- according to the presentation -- has been rethinking the way students are introduced to science. "Most of our students don't know the opportunities that are available," said Melanie Gill-Shaw, coordinator of resource development for the college. So with little to motivate them, an introductory physics or biology class would quickly become what is known as a "drill and kill" moment, where students are tested on numerous terms, become frustrated, and quit.

Eastfield's approach has been to create summer programs in which students receive a stipend to work in a science environment -- at local universities doing basic lab support or in national parks or environmental areas where they can collect specimens and help scientists with large projects. Eastfield is a majority minority institution, and many of the students haven't much been outside of Dallas, let alone to nature preserves.

"You've got kids who have never really seen nature, and they are out at 2 a.m. in a national park collecting frogs and snakes for projects," said Carl Knight, a biology professor at Eastfield. “If you make students memorize biology terms first , it turns them off. But after they've been in the field, they say ‘that’s why I need to know this.' " He stressed that the program isn't based on skipping any of the tough science -- but on changing the way students view it.

The college has also made other changes to attract and keep students. A regular lecture series features scientists -- from a variety of backgrounds -- talking about their careers. As word spread that the events feature free pizza, attendance grew from half a dozen or so to around 50. Open houses are held in local high schools, where students who match the high school's demographics demonstrate experiments. And the college assigns case workers to help organize necessary tutoring and academic support -- as well as financial support -- for students in the program.

Having achieved considerable success so far, Eastfield is now moving on to the classic challenge for community colleges in STEM fields: remediation. The overwhelming majority of students at the college need remedial math, and that holds back and discourages many students, but without the math, they can't take the science. Eastfield is now embarking on two reforms of its remedial programs.

One is to divide remedial math into components. Some students, Gill-Shaw said, are placed in remedial math because of just one or two concepts (fractions, for example) that they never picked up. By offering remedial math in intense components, she said, the college hopes that such students will spend less time in remediation, and move more speedily into college-level work.

The college also plans to offer special remedial math sections in the summer so new students can hope to enter college "math ready," but then to group these students in the same science courses, so math topics can be reinforced in them. Knight said that he believes if the college can tackle remedial math, it may attract and retain still more students in math and science majors.

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