Six years ago, UNM was given an extraordinary opportunity by the U.S. Department of Education. The University believed it could more successfully educate Hispanic and low-income students in the fields of STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math. Believing in the success of the endeavor, the Department of Education awarded UNM not one, but two grants, and two years later a third grant, for total of $9.9 million, an investment that immediately paid academic dividends.  

The STEM Gateway and STEM UP programs were both funded from 2011 to 2017, which included an extension year. The programs’ initiatives were similarly focused on getting students into science and math classes with successful outcomes.

“The STEM Gateway project was designed to provide a multifaceted approach to improving the outcomes for students, particularly Hispanic and low-income students at UNM, to pursue their gateway or entry level course work at the University,” said Gary Smith, co-principal investigator of the STEM Gateway program. “The overarching goal is to provide support for these students to succeed in their degree aspirations.”

The STEM UP collaborative was the conduit to get those students in classrooms. Through a CNM and UNM cooperative, STEM UP provided students with guidance, support and an academic pathway for STEM graduation. The program developed successful transfer agreements between two-year Hispanic Serving Institutions and four-year institutions in STEM fields.

In sync with both of the STEM programs, the STEM Collaborative overlapped in funding, starting in 2014. The Collaborative was set-up to strengthen UNM STEM education efforts with activities and cross-department support, with an added emphasis on out-of-class STEM student engagements.

“If you can’t get past your calculus, or your Newtonian mechanics or general chemistry, then this whole area is off-limits and you’ve lost out on a lot of possible career options.”    —Stephen Cabaniss

The Division of Student Affairs oversees all current Title V STEM grants on campus with support from partnerships with Institutional Research, as well as many academic departments.

“We as the flagship institution in the state of New Mexico, see the initiatives from these grants as a key role for us to make sure to do what we can to provide opportunities for Hispanics and low-income students to be successful in the STEM fields,” said Tim Gutierrez, co-principal investigator on all three Title V STEM grants.

Early STEM Gateway research showed, very clearly, that incoming students are interested in earning STEM degrees. So, interest in STEM isn’t the problem—the challenge is STEM retention.

“Most universities have real problems getting students to complete introductory STEM courses, particularly most large flagship universities,” says Stephen Cabaniss, chair of the UNM Chemistry & Chemical Biology Department. “If you can’t get past your calculus, or your Newtonian mechanics or general chemistry, then this whole area is off-limits and you’ve lost out on a lot of possible career options.”

To boost success in STEM education, the STEM Gateway program established three main initiatives:

  • Course Redesigns: Driven by faculty to change instruction and curriculum to better serve low-income and minority students.
  • Peer Learning Facilitators (PLFs): Students who have excelled in a gateway course and assist instructors who implement active learning in the classroom.
  • Essential Academic Skills Enhancement (EASE) Workshops: A series of workshops focused on providing undergraduate students with support in basic skills required for success in all courses and future career aspirations.

In conjunction with the main initiatives, the STEM Gateway program also implemented data driven research to assist in better understanding the course-taking patterns and success rates of UNM students and CNM transfers in relation to obtaining a STEM degree.

“Of 1,500 first-time, freshman students that declared themselves STEM majors from the period of 2005-2007, when it came to the time of us doing the study in 2012, 23 percent of the students who originally identified themselves as interested STEM actually stayed and got a degree in a science, engineering or math field,” said Yadéeh Sawyer, project director of the STEM Gateway program.

“Our approach was to look at what really is the problem—having so many students not complete a STEM degree,” said Smith. “We do find the proportion of the Hispanic students who enter the science and engineering programs is very comparable to the Anglo students, but not their graduation rates.”

Realizing that students change their minds early on when it comes to these hard STEM classes, the STEM Gateway program concentrated on the working with students within the first three semesters of their college courses. That strategy, coupled with the initiatives, proved successful.

After six years, many of the notable outcomes of the Course Redesign initiative include:

  • Invigoration of STEM faculty interest in teaching: 30+ faculty from UNM and CNM have been directly involved.
  • Active learning pedagogies developed: Data-based evidence for what works and an active learning handbook.
  • Teaching communities created: Both within the Biology and Chemistry departments, teams meet throughout the semester, as well as the Learning Studio Community of Practice in UNM Learn.
  • Graduate student training: 10 graduate assistants were directly involved, but even more trained when implementing labs.
  • Improved outcomes: Based on student opinion surveys and enrollment data.

As the grant funding for STEM Gateway and STEM UP comes to an end, the University is working diligently to institutionalize the beneficial practices that supported and subsequently grew STEM graduation rates at UNM.

One main goal moving forward is to reinstate the Peer Learning Facilitators or PLF initiative that place students, who have excelled in a gateway course, as assistants for STEM instructors who implement active learning in the classroom.

“Having a PLF provides one-on-one learning opportunities that we wouldn’t have if they weren’t there. The PLFs potentially impacted about 3000 students a year, across all ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds,” said Tim Schroeder, director of the STEM Collaborative Center.

Another priority is to continue to offer Essential Academic Skills Enhancement (EASE) workshops.

“During the Fall 2013 semester, the STEM Gateway program partnered with the Dept. of Biology Intro Majors Labs Program to develop a set of workshops that had an emphasis on skills, rather than content, to help encourage students to explore strategies that worked best for them for success in their courses,” said Sawyer. “These are skills students are often expected to have but not always taught. The idea with the workshops is not to teach the entire content, but to provide and introduction or enforcement of key concepts, so that students have a launching point and resource on which to build upon and the workshops really helped students.”

So, the STEM initiatives were a solid investment for student success and according to Schroeder, “Since the inception of the STEM Gateway and STEM UP programs, and in conjunction with other institutional improvement initiatives, there have been gains in retention and graduation rates, including those for Hispanic and low-income STEM populations. This is a great sign we’re moving in the right direction.”