Wednesday, August 10, 2016

STEM Scholars Camp Gives Incoming Freshmen a Jump-Start on University Work and Life

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Kelcy Bennett said she had a realization this summer: “Chemistry is not a cakewalk.”

The incoming University of New Orleans freshman has known for some time that she would be majoring in chemistry. In high school, she admits, she loved labs where she got to mix chemicals that created violent reactions. She wants to be involved in pharmaceutical research one day.

So when Bennett learned about UNO’s five-day STEM Scholars program, she decided it would be well worth it to enroll. With national research showing that fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college with the intention of getting a degree in a STEM field actually complete the degree, Bennett seems to have made a wise choice.

In its second year, the STEM Scholars program at UNO seeks to reduce those odds, giving incoming freshmen majoring in STEM fields a jump-start on college-level math and science courses, while arming them with insights for how to best study, take notes and more.

Wendy Schluchter, professor of biological sciences, said the University saw 12.5 percent higher retention last spring  of students who who went through the summer program in 2015 when compared to all UNO freshmen. Organizers plan to collect data over five years, measuring what impact this immersive college preview experience can have on scores of students who have identified the STEM fields as their careers of choice. 

Over the course of the program, Bennett and 51 other students attended nine content lectures, took three exams and participated in discussions about time management, learning strategies and the wide array of resources available to students to help them succeed. They also met UNO sciences and engineering alumni and toured the University's sciences and engineering facilities.

“You’re going to have to learn in a different way than you’ve been learning,” Jerry Howard, professor of biological sciences, told the students during their first discussion of learning strategies. Howard shared concepts from Bloom’s taxonomy, emphasizing that university students are expected to move beyond simple recall of facts to be able to use what they’ve learned to analyze, evaluate and create.

STEM Scholars is modeled after other intensive transition camps for incoming freshmen that been shown to improve students' scores in their fall courses and increase four-year graduation rates. Thirty-five percent of the UNO participants this year were underrepresented minorities and 27.5 percent were first-generation college students.

The camp is financed with part of a five-year $1.5 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Organizers also depend on a crowd-funding project to help offset a portion of the fee that students pay to participate. Students pay $250 for the course. In exchange they get five days of on-campus room, board and training, and leave with the introductory textbooks that will be used in their upcoming courses, as well as their own iClickers, remote devices that students use in their biology classes to answer questions during lectures.

Bennett, who says she became accustomed to studying to earn As during high school, said the experience opened her eyes to how much of her success over the next four years will depend upon her ability to really learn and understand the material without focusing solely on grades. “It’s important to manage your time—and know that sometimes you may not have the highest grade,” she said.

Rachel Matthews, a sophomore computer science major who went through the program last year, returned for STEM Camp to serve as a mentor to other students. The Mandeville High School graduate said it was rewarding to watch the incoming freshmen and to consider how far she has come in a year. STEM Scholars, she said, was an important ingredient in helping her feel prepared.

“It helped me feel a lot less nervous about my classes,” Matthews said, “especially since I was going straight into calculus.”

Math instructor Lori Hodges was one of several instructors who reviewed basic calculus concepts with students during math camp lectures. In between turning to a chalk board to discuss rational expressions and how to simplify, multiply and divide them, she threw in advice and advisories about what students would see when they get to class this fall.

You may get lecture notes in some classes, she said. And in other classes you may not.

One student last summer, she told the class, scored 10 percent on the camp’s pre-test and a 90 percent by the end. With study, review and discussion with others, it’s easy to make great strides in understanding mathematical concepts, she said.

“Never feel like you’re down and out and you don’t have any hope,” she said.

At the completion of the camp, held Aug. 4-9, Bennett said she’ll be starting class on the lookout for like-minded study partners. She said she likes that she already has established relationships with faculty, staff and upperclassmen who may be able to help guide her should things get tough.

And with a week to go until the official start of class, Bennett said the main thing she learned about university life from the camp was simple: “It’s nothing like high school.”