Keeping students in STEM

Last week, I posted a quote by Alison Gopnik about the strange state of science education, here. It may seem obvious in hindsight, but there is data to back this up: students benefit from actually doing science. What’s more, it is possible to achieve this for fairly large numbers of 1st year undergraduates.

Typically, this type of experience is only available to a select few undergraduate students and only in their final year (e.g., via Honours thesis programs). UBC also has a Directed Studies program allowing students to do research for credit before their final year – which was really great – but as far as I could tell most students don’t get around to it until 4th year, anyway. Furthermore, the apprenticeship model, where undergraduates get research experience by working one-on-one with a more senior mentor, is usually only feasible for relatively small numbers of students anyway.

The University of Texas at Austin has a program called FRI (Freshman Research Initiative) that breaks this mold by allowing 1st year undergraduates to do scientific research in the context of a large class (thereby reaching ~800 students/year). And a recent study by Rodenbusch et al. shows that the students who participate in the FRI class are more likely to graduate within 6 years, and more likely to obtain a degree in a STEM field.

Rodenbusch et al. compared a large sample of UT Austin students enrolled in FRI with others who weren’t in the program. This raises the issue of selection bias, since many students choose to participate in FRI and those that do may have differed from the average student in the first place. To try to account for this, the authors used a sample of non-FRI students who were chosen to closely match each one of their ~2,500 FRI students on a number of variables known to be associated with persistence in STEM (e,g., gender, race, parental education and income, SAT score, and the number of high school math credits earned). Furthermore, they also accounted for these same variables in their statistical analysis. Their results show that the FRI students were more likely to graduate and to obtain a STEM degree than the non-FRI students, independent of these other factors – and despite that fact that the FRI students did not have significantly higher grades.

Although this is not a randomized experiment (and thus we can’t be sure that the analysis fully eliminates selection bias), it does suggest that participating in research early on may cause students to be more likely to persist in STEM. The effect is fairly large: the authors estimate that completing the FRI program boosts the probability that a student will graduate with a STEM degree from 71% to 94%. This is interesting, because retention is one of the biggest issues with diversity in STEM. In biology, for example, many undergraduate degree programs actually have more women than men – this was certainly the case at Queen’s when I did my BSc. And yet at the graduate level, the sex ratio flips to be male biased (more male MSc students than women), and even more so at the PhD level. By the time you get to the level of practicing biologist, there are very few women left.

At UT Austin, students from groups that are underrepresented in the sciences are actually selected for FRI and account for ∼40% of the FRI population. I wonder whether it affects their careers?

Rodenbusch et al. 2015. Early engagement in course-based research increases graduation rates and completion of science, engineering, and mathematics degrees. CBE – Life Sciences Education. 15: 1-10.