Science & Technology

STEM Success program dramatically improves students’ pass rates

First-year results from the STEM Success program reveal drastic improvements in chemistry course pass rates for University of West Florida students. The STEM Success program launched in Fall 2019 and students enrolled in Chemistry I passed at a 263% higher rate than students in the same course during the 2016-17 academic year. The pass rate increased 125% for students in Chemistry II when comparing 2019-20 to 2016-17.

The U.S. Department of Education Strengthening Institutions Program awarded UWF a five-year, $3 million grant for STEM Success. The Chem Success portion of the program is in its second year and UWF launched a second pilot program, Math Success, this fall. Math Success provides peer lead instruction for students in algebra and Calculus I and II courses. A biology pilot program is scheduled for Fall 2021 and a physics pilot program is on tap for Fall 2022.

“We are invested in educating our students and preparing them for rewarding careers,” said Dr. Pam Benz, director of STEM Success and a professor in the Department of Chemistry. “We take seriously our responsibility to provide students pathways to success, and early returns indicate this program is doing exactly what we hoped it would when we applied for the grant.”

The University identified key STEM “gateway courses” with historically low first-time pass rates for the program. In a two-part approach, UWF implemented STEM Success to redesign introductory courses to incorporate active learning instructional strategies and to establish a peer-coaching program that includes coaches and leaders to support students taking these introductory courses.

STEM peer coaching consists of regular meetings between experienced students and students in introductory courses. Peer coaches offer individualized support and provide students with planning and reflecting conversations focused on time management, metacognition strategies, study strategies and self-advocacy with an emphasis on how to succeed in gateway STEM courses. Peer coaches and leader selection is based on successful completion of the course in the pilot program and displaying a desire to help other students. Peer coaches and leaders train in pedagogical practices to facilitate learning, allowing them to communicate common gaps in students’ knowledge. Peer
Instructors integrate the goals of the STEM Success program into course objectives, allowing students to discern connections between peer-lead instruction and traditional lecture.

“It forces students to review the material right in the middle of the week instead of just going to the lecture, taking notes, and then they don’t pick up the book until a full week’s gone by,” said Dolton Bledose, a senior biomedical sciences major who is in his second semester as a Chem Success peer leader. “It reinforces concepts they just went over in lecture, and if they didn’t understand something, it’s not a big deal because we go over those concepts and practice the material.”

For the inaugural Chem Success program, 900 students participated. Each course section seats approximately 90 students who attend three hours of lecture along with a required 50-minute peer lead session each week. In the initial meeting, students completed an interest inventory to ensure less experienced students were grouped with students highly experienced in the course material. Also, students were matched by major and extracurricular interests.

“The Chem Success Program was a huge help to me,” said Quin Godwin, who participated in the pilot program. “As a freshman going for an electrical engineering degree, chemistry was my first big class. The program went through the material at a much more manageable pace. The leader was knowledgeable, friendly and able to communicate tricky chemistry concepts that I would not have been able to grasp otherwise. If someone is nervous about taking Chem I, I would highly recommend that they participate in the Chem Success Program.”

In the Chem Success sessions, students work in small groups to complete worksheets and independently complete quizzes. Leaders review quizzes from the previous week and virtually provide students real-time feedback to complete assigned group worksheets. Leaders attend lectures and meet with faculty weekly to review content for the following week. Faculty teaching the courses also meet weekly to discuss worksheet and quiz content to ensure their students complete the same assignments each week.

Math Success follows a similar blueprint. The program conducted a Fall 2020 survey and nearly 73% of the 289 responders credited the sessions for improved grades.

“In the survey, many students commented on increased engagement throughout the semester and indicated they would not have passed their math class without these sessions,” Benz said. “This tells me the Math Success program is on target to be just as impactful for students as Chem Success. I look forward to seeing similar programs implemented in biology and physics courses.”

For more information on STEM Success, visit uwf.edu/stemsuccess.