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REPRINTED FROM IN VIVO 19(2):11-14, 1998
The Newsletter of the Metropolitan Association of College and University Biologists
Strategies for Enhancing the Success and Retention of Historically Underrepresented Students in the Sciences: The Case of the Biology-CSTEP Program at Medgar Evers College.
Ann Brown, Anthony Udeogalanya and Edward J. Catapane
Department of Biology, Medgar Evers College
Studies conducted over many years by various institutions and organizations clearly show a disparity between the number of successful graduates of college science programs as compared to the other liberal arts programs for students of African-American backgrounds, economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and for women (1-7). Members of these groups continue to be historically under-represented in the sciences and in medicine (8,9). Undergraduate science curriculums are inclined to be very time and labor-intensive as well as being academically demanding. Science courses tend to include laboratory components which often have an expectation of student research projects. Science courses often are viewed as being too difficult by some students. For many students entering colleges from an urban setting, the elementary and high schools are not strong in the sciences and mathematics, a situations which compounds the problems faced by minorities and the economically disadvantaged. It also has been well documented that elementary and high school teachers' attitudes often tend to discourage young girls from developing and pursuing an interest in science (10-12). Student peer pressures are another source of dissuasive influences on young girls in particular, and young students in general, not to excel in science and math (13-14). These factors many times result in students graduating from high schools without being well prepared in the sciences. Nevertheless, numerous students with these experiences enter college with hope and dreams of earning baccalaureate degrees in science, entering graduate and/or medical schools, and becoming successful professionals. An additional number of students who enter college have an unrealized potential to be successful in science, but are not motivated to pursue it. With these considerations in mind, as well as a desire to upgrade and strengthen the undergraduate program in biology, faculty of the Department of Biology of Medgar Evers College, CUNY, attempted to devise strategies to address these issues. This resulted in the formulation of the Biology-CSTEP project which will be described herein. The Biology-CSTEP project was designed to increase and retain the number of historically underrepresented and economically disadvantaged undergraduate students who successfully complete preprofessional-professional education programs of study that lead to careers in biology, applied biology, medical and paramedical fields. The program has been sponsored by the CSTEP project of the New York State Education Department since 1993. This competitive initiative contains measures for recruiting and retaining through graduation, talented students majoring in Biology. A diverse faculty from the Department worked collaboratively and with the students to achieve the following goals and objectives: to improve the students' basic study skills; to motivate students to excel; to improve students' performances in the biology program; to increase student retention in biology programs; to familiarize them with career options in biology, applied biology, medical and paramedical fields; to increase their exposure to career professionals in biology and related fields; and, to ultimately increase the number of and preparedness of students completing the biology program and going on to advanced learning and various careers in science.
Description of Program Activities Qualified students are accepted into the program through recruitment. Recruitment is done through posted advertisement at the college. Criteria which were used to evaluate the applications included successfully completing two semesters of college coursework with a minimum grade point average (GPA) of 2.5, evidence of maturity and interest in science as demonstrated in their performance and in an application essay, and an evaluation of their commitment to fully participate in the activities of the program. In order to achieve the goals and objectives of the program, a variety of activities were planned to encourage and broaden the experiences of this group of student in biology. Upon entry into the program, students were assigned to a faculty member as a mentor and counselor. This faculty assumed the responsibility of guiding the students, arranging enrichment classes and assisting students in planning and monitoring their academic programs. A series of on- and off-campus activities were planned. Improving students' basic study skills while increasing their knowledge of the scientific method was an initial activity. A Biology-CSTEP Learning Center was established and outfitted with a computer and software designed to improve student performance in the sciences, reading and writing. Study skills were strengthened through the Cambridge-Stratford Study Skills Course, a ten- part course covering basic topics important to students' success in college such as goal-setting, time management, reading and writing comprehension, memorization, note-taking, problem-solving and test-taking techniques. This was followed by a one semester course, Research Methods, in which students are exposed to the scientific method, research design and research interests of the faculty. A seminar series was instituted in which renowned professionals gave presentations on various topics in the areas of research, academic issues and career opportunities. Workshops and tutorial services were provided with sessions in reading, writing, mathematics, biology and other science courses. Later in the program an MCAT review course was instituted, and a course in research instrumentation was given. This instrumentation course was especially well received by the students as they appreciated the opportunity to gain exposure and experience with various research instruments and techniques that are not normally a part of an undergraduate course of study. The instrumentation course has been expanded to include computer technologies, including image analyzing, the internet, e-mail and the web. Field trips were taken to various sites of interest to the project, including research laboratories and medical centers. Students also were encouraged to participate in summer internship programs at other universities.
Twenty-six students were selected to participate in the first year of the program. All of the students were either first or second year students. The GPAs of these students increased over their initial GPAs. The average GPAS were 2.78, 3.08, 2.89 and 3.34 for each successive year. Retention rates for the same time period are as follows: one student left college after the first year. The remaining twenty-five students continued in college for two more years. After the fourth year, six students graduated, five transferred to other programs and three left college without obtaining a degree. Eleven of the original twenty six-students (44%) are still in the program and are completing their final year of college. Seven students made the Dean's List in year one, 8 in year two, 10 in year three and 11 in year four. Of the students taking General Biology, Genetics and General Chemistry the average CSTEP student grade was higher than the non-CSTEP students for each course (Figure 1). Several of the students also conducted research projects in addition to their course work and other college activities. Most of these students applied for and were accepted into summer research training programs at other institutions. The number increased from 2 in the 1994 to 14 in 1996. Notable is that six students received Fogarty Fellowships to conduct research activities abroad. Three were accepted to go to Finland and three to Singapore. Over twenty presentations on the research projects have been given at the Annual Statewide CSTEP Conferences and more recently at the Metropolitan Association of College and University Biologists 1996 Conference. Noteworthy also is that our students won first and fifth place in the Natural and Physical Sciences Category and third place in Technology at the Fourth Annual Statewide CSTEP Conference of 1995. At the Fifth Annual Statewide CSTEP Conference our students won first place in the Human Services and Social Studies category and second place in Natural and Physical Sciences category for their poster presentations. Of the six students who graduated in 1996, all are pursuing their education in graduate schools. For the prospective 1997 graduates, the average time taken by these students to graduate is significantly shorter than that of the other students (9 semesters for CSTEP, 12 semesters for non- CSTEP students; Figure 2). There are a number criteria, which although they are not easily quantified, we nevertheless have observed positive outcomes. Student morale has risen within CSTEP and this has had an influence on other students within the department. The number of students majoring in biology is at an all-time high, having more than doubled within the last three years (Figure 3). The science club has been revitalized and conducts a full spectrum of student oriented activities, at times cosponsored with CSTEP. A major activity which is well attended is the seminar series in which speakers come to the college to discuss research, academic issues and career opportunities.
The Biology-CSTEP program at Medgar Evers College was designed to address factors hindering historically underrepresented students from successfully pursuing undergraduate programs leading to careers in the sciences and related areas. The program provides academic enrichment along with an organized series of activities to mentor, enhance, encourage and motivate students. It helped to establish good, positive relationships between students and other students, between students and the college, and between students and other professionals. The success of the program is evidenced by the improved academic development of the students, including the number of students who made the Dean's List and their improved cumulative GPAs as compared to non-CSTEP students. Although it is too early to assess the long-term impact of the Biology-CSTEP program in meeting its goals of increasing the number of historically underrepresented and economically disadvantaged undergraduate students who successfully complete preprofessional-professional education programs of study leading to careers in biology, applied biology, medical and paramedical fields; it is our experience to date that many students who otherwise would not have pursued science as a major are opting for it and are doing very well. The program thus far is well on its way to making meaningful , positive impact by better preparing and motivating students for success. We are confident that this improvement in performance will extend beyond the time and space of Medgar Evers College because our graduates will carry with them a commitment for excellence and an appreciation for quality education as they pursue their careers. We suggest that the program strategies are applicable to other sites and for other institutions having students with diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds, and recommend that strategies to this end be implemented where possible.
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