Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) will apply a holistic approach to educating science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students. The project goal is to improve the overall quality of STEM education at the University by increasing its efficiency in producing STEM students who are prepared for graduate study. This change will be achieved through the introduction of STEM Learning Communities (LC) at FAMU. Learning communities have been shown to improve retention rates, increase student learning and achievement, increase faculty engagement, and lessen the feelings of isolation some students feel on large campuses. It is anticipated that 200 STEM students per year will participate in the project.
Intellectual merit: The LCs that will be created at FAMU are based on models that have been successful at other institutions of higher education. The project includes a research component which will allow FAMU to learn from the implementation of the LCs at a large Historically Black University. The research design will likely contribute significantly to the current knowledge base on LCs and African-American student success.
Broader impacts: Because of the research component, the project has the potential to fundamentally change the delivery of STEM education at universities with large populations of African-American students. In addition, the project will likely increase the retention and graduation rates of STEM students at FAMU which is one of the largest producers of African-American students in STEM in the country.
The Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Learning Community (STEM-LC) at Florida A&M University project funded through the National Science Foundation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities Program (HBCU-UP) was a successful collaboration involving faculty, administrators, staff, and students at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU). Florida A&M University is the largest single campus HBCU in the United States with an enrollment of over 12,000 students. The STEM-LC project focused primarily on first-time-in-college (FTIC) students who majored in chemistry; computer, environmental, and agricultural sciences; mathematics; physics; technology; and six areas of engineering: chemical, civil, computer, electrical, industrial, and mechanical. During the lifetime of the project, almost 1200 students graduated from Florida A&M University with a baccalaureate degree in one of the STEM majors listed above. During the entire life of the project, over 250 first-time-in-college students directly benefited from program activities. Student participants were selected based on being "college-ready." That is, they were academically prepared to register for college-level courses. The program was open to all STEM majors with the exception of life science students. A new class, or cohort, of students was recruited each academic year. A total of six cohorts participated in the program. A majority of the participants, 67% of the overall total, majored in engineering. Almost one-quarter (23.6%) of the cohorts were female students, and over 90% of the participants were African-American. The primary goal of project was to develop a non-residential learning community of FAMU STEM students who were clustered around curricular and co-curricular activities. Its purpose was to provide the integration of these activities among faculty, students, and staff with the expectation that the academic performance of learning community students would be statistically superior to those students who do not participate in the learning community. Our entire summative evaluation given in the NSF final report clearly demonstrates that students who participated in the project academically performed much better than their peers who did not. Many of these differences are statistically significant at a p-value level less than 0.05. The program had several key design elements including: (1) book stipends, (2) town hall meetings, (3) branch activities, (3) active performance monitoring, and (4) peer mentoring and tutoring. As an example, STEM LC participants were given an opportunity to participate in co-curricular activities given the name "branch activities." Students could select from one of several choices provided to them at the beginning of the program each academic year. One branch activity was integrative interdisciplinary research projects. These projects provided first-year students an opportunity to conduct "real-world" research to provide some context to the material they were learning in their math, science, and engineering courses. Some first-year students chose to improve their communication and organizational skills by developing and publishing the Learning Community Newsletter. The logo shown in the attached Figure 1 was designed by a group of LC students who participated in this branch activity. Other key design elements such as town hall meetings, active performance monitoring, and peer mentoring and tutoring were design to provide key support services to these first-year students. Project results were very encouraging. Students participating in the program academically outperformed their non-participating peers in almost every academic measure. Figure 2 shows the mean First-Term Grade Point Average by cohort year. Years 2004 and 2005 are provided as a baseline comparison. The chart shows that LC students performed better during their first semester each year. For example, in 2008, STEM LC engineering students had a mean fall 2008 semester grade point average (GPA) of 2.79, while non-STEM LC engineering students GPA was only 2.10. Additionally, the mean spring semester GPA of the STEM LC students increase slightly to 2.80, the mean spring semester GPA of non-STEM LC students decreased dramatically. Our analysis suggests that this difference in mean GPA between the two groups remained until the third year. So, one program objective of giving students a "good" start academically was achieved for this cohort. For almost every academic metric measured, similar results were obtained including graduation rates. To further illustrate this point, we developed a binary logistic regression model of the 2008 cohort which suggests that engineering students who participated in the STEM LC were three times more likely to complete an important graduation milestone compared to engineering students who did not participate in the project. Several graduates from the program have been awarded prestigious fellowships and are now in graduate programs earning master's and doctoral degrees. Others have chosen to enter the STEM workforce working in industry. In general, our analysis shows that given two students with similar abilities, the students who chose to be actively involved in the project benefited the most from the services provided by them.