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Health & Science

Two Houston Universities Get Grants To Stop STEM Drop-Outs

The University of Houston and Rice University won national grants to help prevent STEM drop-outs.

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Both the University of Houston and Rice University have won the same national grant to keep struggling undergraduates from giving up on science, technology, engineering and math majors – the so-called “STEM majors.”  

Nationally, more than half the undergrads who start out in STEM majors don’t finish. The attrition rate is even worse among women and minorities.

“Currently of 100 students that come into a STEM majors as freshman, we only graduate  about 25, 26 of them in six years,” said Dan Wells, interim dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Houston.

“They’re dropping out, they’re going to other majors. In a large extent they’re not prepared enough to handle the rigor of these kinds of programs. We want to not give up on them,” Wells said.  

For the past year, the college has experimenting with news ways to improve retention in introductory biology.

For example, freshman aren’t just going to large lectures. They attend one-hour break-out sessions in small groups, led by tutors. The tutors are juniors and seniors who have already successfully navigated the course.

Even during the large lectures, professors are moving beyond the “sage on a stage” model, Wells said. They use more interactive techniques such as live quizzes and even role-playing of biological mechanisms such as transcription of a protein.

“We actually model it out. We have props,” Wells explained.

“We have students come in and (we) say: ‘You’re going to be an ATP (molecule) and you’re going to be a nucleotide, and how are you going to do it?’” Wells explained. “And at the same time we’re asking questions to the audience: ‘What do you think they should do next?’”

Those techniques helped raised the biology course completion rate by at least 15 percent.

Now the University of Houston has received a five-year, $1.5 million from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to expand the approach to introductory calculus, chemistry and physics. The changes will begin this fall.

Rice University also received a $1.9 million grant from the same foundation to add hands-on problem-solving to more of its science courses – an approach that has been shown to engage students and keep them from dropping out of STEM disciplines.  

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is based in Maryland and supports basic scientific research and scientific education. The Institute awarded a total of $60 million to 37 research universities across the country. 

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