Research & Teaching
By Anne Lucietto, Holden Buckner, and Antonia Munguia
A key issue encountered in our college as well as others throughout the United States is the retention of students from underrepresented populations, especially in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. As such, there is a large body of research on the subject. One common focus of research is introductory courses that can offer students more tools for success in their studies.
This article covers one such introductory program aimed at female students entering a variety of polytechnic programs, including computer graphics, information technology, engineering technology, and construction management. The purpose of this article is to share the practices and successes of this early-intervention program and the experiences of the students involved. We hope by comparing the experiences of these students with the experiences of students who did not participate, useful data can be gained to apply to similar programs.
Retaining students is widely recognized as a core problem for STEM educators. STEM programs consistently feature high attrition rates due to students transferring majors or dropping out (Windsor et el., 2015). This is not a new problem, with studies showing a consistent attrition rate of nearly 45% over the past century (Xu, 2016). Nevertheless, retention of students in STEM fields remains a critical issue, as predictions warn that the United States will suffer a deficit of 1 million college graduates in STEM fields over the next 10 years (Graham et al., 2013). Existing literature emphasizes the importance of building connections between students and the institution, especially for students from underrepresented groups. This connection can come in several forms, such as peer and faculty mentoring, strong social groups, research projects, and community service (Palmer et al., 2011; Talbert, 2012). In light of this issue, we chose to consider the following topics and how they relate to the goals of the course: retention, graduation rates (specifically 4- and 6-year graduation rates), peer and upper-class mentors, faculty mentors, first-year students, and the value of longitudinal data.
Educators consider retention a problematic area, particularly in STEM fields. The Tinto model of student retention is one of the most well-known theoretical descriptions of retention and emphasizes student integration with their institutions, both social and academic (Tinto, 1993). Studies have shown that students are more likely to succeed academically when they are a member of a peer support group; these studies show that feelings of belonging are critical to student persistence, especially for students from minority groups who frequently feel excluded and have lower graduation rates (Palmer et al., 2011).
Interestingly, studies aimed at analyzing grit, or stubbornness and persistence, in college STEM students found no correlation between grit and college grade point average (GPA), the latter of which is a major indicator of retention. As a result, the authors of these studies concluded that grit did not have a major effect on the retention of students in STEM fields overall, theorizing that grit may instead manifest in students’ efforts to find a degree program that is a better fit for their needs (Bazelais et al., 2016). Study results surrounding grit appear to be inconsistent. One study, for example, noted that female students in STEM programs who developed grit were more successful (Watson, 2020), and another noted that some reports have critiqued the concept of grit as pushing students to attempt to succeed in majors to which they are not well suited (Verdin et al., 2018). One important result noted was that grit appears to be a developed skill, not an innate trait; feelings of belonging and improved counseling techniques were correlated with higher measures of grit (Verdin et al., 2018; Warren & Hale, 2020). These findings suggest that efforts to improve students’ sense of belonging can improve grit and student retention.
Graduation rates are a key indicator of attrition rates and student success. Much research centers around graduating students and factors that affect graduation rates. Studies show consistently lower graduation rates for students from minority backgrounds, but they also suggest several paths forward. One study demonstrated that important factors in successful student graduation largely revolved around social inclusion on campus and a strong association with the school, with Black students who attend historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) demonstrating consistently higher graduation rates than the researchers’ model predicted (DeAngelo et al., 2011). These findings were supported by another study, which found that common factors across varying institutions all pointed to the need for close relations within student groups and between students and faculty (Muraskin & Lee, 2004). That said, more research is required to determine where improved funding can have the greatest effect on graduation rates; some studies indicate that funding allocated to public institutions had a statistically more significant effect on graduation rates (Scott et al., 2006), but others argue that there is no significant link between the implementation of intensive retention programs and graduation rates, making it clear that more research is needed on this subject (Johnson & Stage, 2018).
4-year graduation rates
Students’ 4-year graduation rates are among the most commonly studied aspects of measures of attrition. Research has demonstrated that the academic quality of the institution, the student’s own involvement with the institution, and student motivation are key factors for a student to graduate in 4 years (Xu, 2016). Other studies show that enhanced funding is key to supporting students from disadvantaged and underrepresented populations who are not served by more selective institutions, calling into question the policies that allocate funding based on graduation rates (Crisp et al., 2018). It is important to determine how to manage retention programs and funding most effectively.
6-year graduation rates
The 6-year graduation rate measures how many students are able to attain a 4-year degree in 6 years. Researchers have conducted longitudinal data analysis of 6-year graduation rates, finding that the single largest positive predictor of graduation was last-term GPA. Interestingly, starting out in a STEM major was negatively correlated with graduation, but transferring to the major later was positively correlated with graduation. The authors of one study interpreted these mismatched graduation rates for students transferring into STEM as indicative of a need to guide students to majors where they can succeed; these authors theorized that the process of switching majors tends to select for people who are more determined to succeed in that major (Whalen & Shelley, 2010).
It is, however, important to ensure that additional programs and funding are properly allocated. Despite wide variances in 6-year graduation rates among institutions, there is no clear correlation between overall funding in any of 10 major categories and 6-year graduation rates (Cantrell, 2006). More research is therefore necessary to determine how funding should be allocated.
A great deal of research describes the effects of involved mentoring programs that include both peer mentors and faculty advisors. One study found that intensive mentoring aimed at underachieving STEM students was able to boost retention rates by nearly 20% as compared with the overall STEM student population (Wilson et al., 2012). It is clear that mentoring is an important category of research.
Peer and upperclass student mentors
Peer mentors can have a significant effect on student retention. Studies have found that female students who are matched with female peer mentors early in their college career have greater retention and an overall more positive college experience (Dennehy & Dasgupta, 2017). Another study analyzing a peer mentor program found that all participants considered the experience beneficial and would recommend it highly to incoming students (Cutright & Evans, 2016). Research into the specific benefits of peer mentoring found that a direct link to retention was not statistically significant, but peer mentors did offer students key benefits by normalizing their academic challenges and linking students to academic resources (DeMarinis et al., 2017).
Students’ connection to major and faculty mentors
Studies of faculty mentoring programs are often aimed at how to involve students in their majors more deeply. One such study found that involving students with research, mentors, and like-minded peer groups boosted both retention and academic performance (Schneider et al., 2015). Research focused more specifically on faculty connections found that students working directly with faculty in research programs saw a significant improvement in retention, especially in underrepresented groups with generally higher attrition rates (Gregerman et al., 1998).
Having faculty members who are able to support mentoring programs has been found to be an important capability for institutions. Studies have shown that when institutions promote both easier engagement with students and new professional development opportunities, faculty members are more engaged in their work and involved with their students (Sutton-Haywood et al., n.d.). However, these studies also indicated that early intervention with first-year students was a highly effective component of the programs studied.
There is extensive research into first-year student programs, as studies have indicated that such programs are highly effective in improving retention and graduation rates, especially among students from minority groups (Schneider et al., 2015). These programs can improve both skills and attitudes; a study discussing a first-year mathematics boot camp as part of a larger multiyear program noted that more than 70% of students in the boot camp program improved their motivation, confidence, and skills in math and that students engaged in the follow-up program had higher GPAs (Russomanno et al., 2010).
Many studies track student progress across their college career to get a better sense of the challenges in retention. These longitudinal data are important because they allow year-by-year tracking of where challenges arise and how various factors influence retention. Researchers can use statistical studies to analyze these factors in combination across multiple years to isolate them and determine how to best approach improving retention (Whalen & Shelley, 2010). Another study utilized longitudinal data to evaluate the success of a new retention program across several years, assessing the effects of changes to the curriculum (Schneider et al., 2015). It is evident that longitudinal data analysis is one of the most effective means of studying factors in retention.
One especially valuable data set for longitudinal data is the MIDFIELD database. MIDFIELD (Multiple-Institution Database for Investigating Engineering Longitudinal Development) is a large and thorough repository of engineering student data from 12 institutions, covering more than 1 million students and representing one ninth of engineering graduates across the United States (Lucietto, 2014). The MIDFIELD data are an important resource for studies that include longitudinal research in the engineering education field. Specific subsets of these data can be used to track the success of interventions in individual institutions and programs.
This project considers an intervention created with the student in mind. The TECH 101 introductory course is designed to provide female polytechnic students with additional tools for success in a university setting. Students are encouraged to perform learning tasks and build connections that support engagement and retention for students who are often at a higher risk of dropping out or leaving STEM programs
The TECH 101 class studied for this article was taught by the university’s director of recruitment, retention, and diversity during the time period when the data were gathered; it is an optional class for female first-year students in the Polytechnic Institute. The course was introduced prior to 2008 under different instructors, but there are no data available for this period. The course is open to female first-year students in the Polytechnic Institute, is only available in the fall semester, and meets once a week. Peer mentors played a large role in the course in recent years and were recruited from students who had taken the class in prior years. The precise content of the class has varied from year to year, with significant changes between 2008 and 2018; details are described in the Course Content section. Example assignments from recent years include interviewing a female professor in the department about her career and academic experience or locating a company in a student’s preferred field on Working Mothers magazine’s Top 100 list and researching the company’s policies. Guest speakers present to the class frequently, and the TECH 101 program has been able to bring back many alumni as guest speakers.
Data were gathered on the success of female students in the Polytechnic Institute, specifically those who took TECH 101 and those who did not, over the course of 10 years.
These data cover the retention of female students in the Polytechnic Institute over 10 years. Tables 1 and 2 show a final amalgamation of the base data set, which tracked each cohort of female students individually over 6 years. Cohorts are marked by the year when they began their studies at the university. Students are divided into two categories: those who participated in an intervention (the TECH 101 class; Table 1) and those who did not (Table 2). Retention measures the percentage of the original cohort’s students who remained enrolled in the Polytechnic Institute after a certain number of years. Graduation measures the percentage of students in a program who graduated after a certain number of years. The TECH 101 cohort size was between 25 and 50 students for the duration of the study. Non-TECH cohort size was fewer than 150 students over the same period.
Initially, these data appear to show two trends. First, overall graduation and retention percentages trend up over time through both data sets. Second, TECH 101 graduation and retention percentages are notably higher than similar numbers for non–TECH 101 students. This is illustrated in Figure 1 and Figure 2.
The improved student retention rate in the TECH 101 program is clearly illustrated in Figure 1. Student retention in the TECH 101 program also trends up over time. There is a large gap in retention rates in the first few years of the program before this number settles into a milder increase between 2010 and 2015. The effect appears to be the most pronounced in the third-year retention figure, the only one that is higher in all years for TECH 101 students. The first-year figure shows consistently improved retention rates for TECH 101 students after 2011 but lower retention rates in 2010. The second-year figure shows an inconsistent improvement for TECH 101 students, nearly tying with the base no-intervention figure in several years. It should be noted, however, that the small sample size of the TECH 101 population does reduce the significance of minor variations in retention rates.
As shown in Figure 2, the impact of the TECH 101 intervention on graduation rates is most pronounced in the fifth and sixth years. That said, the TECH 101 graduation rate curve does appear to flatten out for several years and does dip below the non-TECH 101 curve. The 4-year curve is less consistent and does dip below the non-TECH 101 curve in 2014 but continues to improve, whereas the non-TECH 101 curve dips back down. The 6-year graduation curve shows the most consistent improvement for TECH 101 students and does not dip below the non-TECH 101 curve at any point, indicating that a greater percentage of students overall persevered to graduation. As previously mentioned, it should be noted that the small sample size of the TECH 101 population does reduce the significance of minor variations in graduation rates.
For an in-depth analysis of the TECH 101 course’s structure and content over the period studied, several years of syllabus data were compiled into a single table for comparison (see Table 3). The number of speakers per year and whether they were from the university or industry are shown in Figure 3.
Overall, the most consistent feature of the class was the final group project, in which students formed groups and wrote a paper on a company of their choice from a list of the top 100 companies for working mothers. Peer mentors were also present in all iterations of the class, but program directors reported that their role expanded beyond the official scope of the syllabus in later years. Other features of the class evolved over time.
Initially, the main feature of the class was a series of group discussions about gender and workplace skills. Over time, emphasis moved from these discussions to guest speakers. Several topics that were previously formatted as group discussions eventually switched to talks held by guest speakers, resulting in the large discussions being removed from the syllabus in 2014. These guest speakers were a mix of women with successful industry careers and staff members from the university’s careers office and administration. The more successful cohorts post-2013, after the 2010–2012 downturn, spoke with predominantly university speakers, such as the dean of the university’s Polytechnic Institute and career office instructors. The shift back toward favoring industry speakers in 2018 does show a potential correlation with the slight downturn at the end of the retention graph. More data would be needed to confirm that this is not simply coincidence; the trailing end of the retention data set in 2018–2019 makes it difficult to reach any firm conclusions.
Student organization meetings were held across all years, primarily with organizations such as Women in Technology and Women in Aviation, but the roster of organizations invited expanded over the years. A Women in Technology events schedule was provided with the syllabus in later classes. A resume workshop was present in most years, but it was removed for 2 years to make room for an assignment in which students visited female professors in their departments to interview them about their career and write a report; the workshop and assignment coexisted in later years.
Professor visits, in which students were assigned to visit and interview a professor, started in 2011. Interestingly, although the 2011 cohort performed worse than the 2010 cohort in earlier years, the drop in graduation rates was not quite as pronounced, and the 4-year graduation rate even improved. It is possible that the professor visitation program provided more benefit to students who maintained a relationship with their professor as they approached graduation, offering an explanation for the skewed trend.
Program directors noted that the class moved from two instructors to one instructor and a peer assistant in 2012 and that the role of peer mentors in the class was expanded between 2012 and 2013. During this time period, instructors began encouraging students to work with peer mentors and made them a core part of the class, albeit an unofficial one. This is in contrast with the prior arrangement, in which peer mentors were essentially an optional component of the course. There was a notable improvement in retention and graduation rates for cohorts that went through the program in this period; several categories saw dramatic improvements between years, but all saw at least a minor upturn. It is therefore considered reasonable to assert that the expansion of the peer mentor program resulted in a dramatic improvement in program success.
The TECH 101 Women in Technology class is designed to promote the retention of female students and address underrepresentation in the university’s Polytechnic Institute programs. The class addresses many of the concerns identified in prior literature and aims to provide students with a foundation for academic success by encouraging connections with peers and faculty, promoting student organizations, guiding students into majors in which they can succeed, and building students’ confidence. Anecdotal evidence from program directors suggests that many female students felt out of place and were discouraged by the normal challenges of technology programs. Promoting connections between these students and faculty and upperclass student mentors aimed to address these difficulties, as students were able to interact with role models and other students who had encountered the same challenges in their academic careers. Program directors identified a need to break through unrealistic expectations and address concerns surrounding imposter syndrome or the feeling of not belonging.
Students in the TECH 101 program are assigned several tasks to help them achieve these goals, many of which serve a dual purpose. Students often develop a mentoring relationship with their professor during the visitation assignments, with the professors helping guide students through their academic careers. Peer mentors serve a similar role, offering mentees advice from their experience taking similar courses. Research assignments and discussions are all aimed at promoting connections with peers and successful women at the university to build a network.
Three specific components of TECH 101 have been identified as the most significant for promoting student retention: professor visits, peer mentoring, and presentations by speakers from the industry. The introduction of the professor visitation assignment and the expanded peer mentoring program both correlate with a significant rise in student success according to the retention and graduation rate data. This outcome does support prior research that indicated that building connections with peers and faculty at the university is critical to student retention. More data around these topics could confirm which aspects of the programs were most successful. The potential correlation between university speakers and student success also warrants further consideration. Although the selection of female industry speakers was intended to allow students to see themselves at later points in their careers, per the program instructors, it is worth considering that successful women in the university administration and career office were better able to motivate students toward success in their academic careers. It is hoped that the success of an intensive first-year program incorporating peer mentors, faculty connections, and university advisors can provide lessons that can be applied to similar programs looking to improve their retention of female students.
Anne Lucietto (email@example.com) is an associate professor in the School of Engineering Technology at the Purdue Polytechnic Institute; Holden Buckner is a graduate of the School of Mechanical Engineering; and Antonia Munguia is the director of recruitment, retention, and diversity at the Purdue Polytechnic Institute, all at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.
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