What does it take for a student who decides she wants to be a STEM field major to make it all the way to graduation with that science, technology, engineering or math degree in her hand?
For the last three years, the University of New Orleans has been taking a strategic approach to answering that question in the face of daunting national statistics showing STEM degree completion rates are not keeping up with national workforce demand.
One UNO program seems to be helping. It’s called the STEM Scholars Camp.
Over six days, incoming freshmen who have decided to major in a STEM field move into a dorm on campus, meet other STEM majors and launch into classroom lectures and tests designed to give them a review of basic concepts and a preview of what it will take to succeed.
This year, 53 students participated in year three of a program funded largely by a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The camp was held Aug. 3-8 and gave students the opportunity to socialize, attend class, meet in study groups, hear from alumni professionals in the field and review study and learning strategies.
Wendy Schluchter, professor and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, is up front with the students about why UNO hosts the program.
“Many students entering a STEM major get discouraged that first year as freshmen,” she told them during the welcome session on Aug. 3. “That first year is a critical year, so that’s why we’re focusing on this camp to give you a flavor of what’s coming and to give you the tools to succeed.”
Dominique Scott, a recent graduate from the New Orleans Charter Science & Mathematics High School (better known as SciHigh), said she and her mother knew as soon as they heard about STEM Camp that Scott should attend.
An aspiring civil engineer, Scott said that she enjoyed connecting with other STEM majors who can provide study group support once classes are underway. Getting to know the professors prior to the official launch of the semester has increased her level of comfort. While she said much of the math and science that was shared in lecture was familiar to her, she did have one huge take-away. She said she learned that research indicates that students who take notes by hand are more likely to retain information than those who take notes by computer.
“I didn’t know that,” she said.
But even with all that support, Scott said on the final day of the camp, she’s still a little nervous about what will happen on Aug. 16 when fall classes begin.
“It helped, but I still want to go back and try to remember where the buildings are before I start class,” Scott said with a smile.
Forty percent of this year's participants identified themselves as underrepresented minorities. The retention rates for STEM Scholar Camp students have run three to 12 percent higher than all first-time, full-time freshmen, according to Schluchter.
Besides the grant from HHMI, 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.
Glena Larsen, Scott’s mother, said she was thrilled that UNO offered the STEM Scholars opportunity for students like her daughter. “I think it’s a fabulous thing,” she said. “Anything that can help her get a leg up.”