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Building Powerful STEM Experiences for Early College/Dual Enrollment Students

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) majors are among the most in demand for colleges and in the workplace. Graduates in STEM fields, such as engineering, biology, or physics make a premium of 30% over college graduates in other fields. As a result of the perceived gap in the number of young people entering STEM fields, there has been a great deal of interest in early college and dual enrollments focusing on creating pathways that can ease student transition from high school to college to career, with STEM areas at the center of these. Part of this demand comes from students and parents themselves, who see starting salaries and employment numbers for STEM and health care areas, and want to prepare to pursue those jobs. However, for STEM graduates without soft skills, the ability to communicate clearly, and leadership aptitude, this bonus can fade out, leaving the engineer earning less than a liberal arts peer in a few years in the workforce. As a result, when building a STEM program for early college and dual enrollment, the design of the program should focus on the long term, rather than the first job starting salary. There are key skills and classes that can truly give students seeking a STEM degree a better chance of being able to pursue that field successfully.

First among these is mathematics, which can keep many students out of STEM fields altogether. Particularly for students from less advantaged backgrounds, getting a good start on mathematics in high school can help them avoid the remedial classes that spell the doom of many aspiring STEM majors. Getting through some calculus before high can make a real difference for students and can put them on an equal footing with their peers. Next are foundational classes in areas such as the life sciences. Our students have done well in biology, with a focus on genetics, in our early college program. These courses, taught at the college level, connect to many areas that students are interested in, such as health care and medical treatment, as well as to issues in their own lives, such as the spread of diseases.

Classes that are foundational in the health sciences have also proved popular with students in our program. For our seniors, we added anatomy and physiology, long the bane of students in health science and nursing. While a challenging class to tackle in high school, those students who pursue this path will enter college able to start with classes that do not serve as gatekeepers for their field.

Laboratory coursework is a unique challenge for early college and dual enrollment programs. Many students in urban settings enter high school without the lab science background that many instructors take for granted. Many high schools look to early college or dual enrollment opportunities to fill in opportunities that are hard to get in the regular high school curriculum due to facilities and cost. However, helping students understand topics such as lab safety, lab procedure, data analysis, and lab report writing is a tall order, often only tackled in one session per week.

Researchers have found that STEM classes are often the toughest part of early college to get right, in part because the college classes that they draw on are often difficult and not organized with an eye to student success. In her article "Early College High Schools: Lessons Learned in the College Science Classroom," Adrienne Alaie discussed the difficulties of teaching early college students in the context of a large (700+ student) biology lecture class. Of the 37 early college students enrolled in the class, few attended lectures and separate early college recitation sections, very few passed the midterm exam, and only a handful passed the final exam and the class. The author argues that the disengagement of the students led them to fail, and that as a result, they lost motivation to take STEM coursework in the future. This left the students in the early college program worse off than if they had delayed their STEM experience until freshman year (Alaie, 2011).

0 Lead to Launch: William Leach ■w

William Leach is the Principal of the STEM/Engineering Early College at the University of North Carolina - Charlotte. To build powerful STEM programs he suggests:

  • • Offer as much coursework as you can before students take first year STEM and engineering college classes.
  • • Offer maximum support to students in the early years of their time in early college to build their skills before they enter the college classroom.
  • • Be open to students not pursuing STEM careers and majors - they will use those problem-solving skills wherever they go.

Early College Programs that Focus on STEM

William Leach is not your average early college principal. With 21 years of experience in traditional high schools and middle schools before moving into leadership in early college, Leach drew on his traditional school experience to build an innovative STEM/engineering early college at University of North Carolina - Charlotte. He compares his engineering early college (in its sixth year) to a middle school model - a holistic approach to student achievement and support, a focus on career/academic exploration, grade level teams working together on curriculum, and a commitment to helping every student meet their own goals.

His Engineering Academy is located on the campus of UNC-Charlotte, and his 350 students have an option of a 5th year of early college, which amounts for most to be a free full year of college classes at UNC-Charlotte. His students are graduating, and moving on to college either at UNC-Charlotte or other colleges or trade schools, and as they move into the college classroom, respect for the program grows across campus.

Focus on Teaching the Students You Have

The biggest obstacle STEM and engineering early colleges face is working with the students who arrive on campus freshman year. For Leach, this means whichever students have applied to the school and passed through a lottery process. These students attended a range of schools before this, and their performance, particularly in key areas such as math, can range from top of the class to remedial. But Leach views this policy as a strength, as the school has become representative of the district's demographics, and with the addition of free bussing from anywhere in Charlotte, is accessible to more students and families than ever. He says "We will take all comers," and he is proud of that distinction.

The school program is designed to engage students from day one, and to connect engineering and STEM to whatever students may want to pursue in the future. Students take an array of classes at the early college, including math, project lead the way engineering curriculum, and other key STEM subjects such as chemistry. Unlike many other programs, much of the high school coursework is not dual credit, by design. The students need that coursework, particularly in areas such as English and writing, to eventually succeed in key gateway classes offered on campus. By junior and senior year, students are taking more classes on the UNC-Charlotte campus, and in the fifth year, students begin the engineering sequence.

The program does not work for every student, and by sophomore year, the school might be having hard conversations with students about their achievement - whether having a 2.4 GPA at the school will ultimately lead to the kind of college admission that the student and family might expect. Graduates of the program do not all go on to engineering, either. Many graduate from the engineering early college and pursue other fields in STEM, such as computer science, or areas of the social sciences, such as criminology. Leach believes that these students still gain from the curriculum, particularly skills such as design and problem-solving, and bring these with them into new fields.

The classes at the school are designed to be engaging, with little teacher lecturing or talking. Students are formed into teams, working around tables rather than desks, and classrooms hum with the noise of student discussions - the classrooms look more like elementary classrooms in their setup than traditional high school rows of individual desks, with only 20 to 25 students per class. Leach has focused on finding teachers who are seasoned, but are open to the model, and finding good math teachers has been a key to the program's success.

Leach sees the big advantage of early college being access and affordability. Particularly with the 5th year free, students are able to take advantage of a range of options that other programs do not have. Some students are graduating the program with 70 college credits, making them over halfway done with a rigorous academic program. In that 5th year, the students continue to receive support through the school, attending a seminar, and receiving help with the college applications process.

The students have made a name for themselves at UNC-Charlotte and beyond. The average GPA of the students in college classes has been 3.0, quite an achievement in many STEM classes. UNC-Charlotte and other colleges have ramped up recruiting his students, and Duke Energy just announced the funding for scholarships for eight students per year to attend UNC-Charlotte to provide funds for early college students to finish their program at UNC-Charlotte for free.

Still, the program has not reached all the students it could, according to Leach. "I wish I could go out and recruit more diamonds in the rough," Leach says, and when he goes out to middle schools to recruit, too many students and families tell him that they had never heard of the school until they met him. Leach is most proud of students who came into the school disengaged, and went on to achieve: "we have students who would not have made a high school diploma in a traditional high school." Through the support and engagement of the program, they graduated and went on to college, even if it is not in a STEM area.

Connecting the early college to the engineering and STEM curriculum and faculty at the college level has been the biggest challenge. Some college leaders simply never set foot in his building to learn more about the school. Others felt that the students would not be able to handle the work once they got to campus. Space has been a constant challenge, and next year, 9th graders will be in another building as a result of the space crunch. However, with six classes in engineering before they arrive at their first college-level engineering class, the students have performed well once they reach college engineering courses. However, the "gatekeeper" nature of STEM and engineering classes, with the built-in notion that many students will fail, creates an atmosphere in which students choose to not pursue engineering, or even STEM, out of dislike of the atmosphere.

Connecting High School Students to College STEM Experiences

Kaitlin Dinet has worked supporting students in the Merrimack College/ Lawrence High School program from the start three years ago. She graduated with her Master's Degree in 2017, and took the position at Lawrence High School in order to work closely with college faculty on a new early college program. She credits her mentors at the college and the high school with helping her make the jump from teaching middle school to supporting high school/college classes.

Dinet works with the high school students on the days they are not on the college campus to make sure they are getting all the information they need for their high school state curriculum and exams, and to keep them making progress on their college coursework. She works to make sure all students are ready for the college-level coursework, even when their elementary and middle school backgrounds are uneven, and not preparing the students completely for the coursework they are taking. The high school, over time, has built a talented staff of STEM teachers, and worked to curriculum map backwards from the college curriculum, to build excellent 9th and 10th grade physics and chemistry curriculums.

Dinet works with the college faculty member to support students. They meet in person once a week, and talk by phone constantly. This includes looking at the data on student achievement, looking at ways that both of them are teaching, and keeping on the same page. This work supports the students, who Dinet describes as

amazing - the kids really love to learn, and they are just coming to biology. They want to learn, they enjoy the process of learning science, and they love having a choice in their assignments, and they love the real-world applications of science.

The biggest barrier to getting students interested in STEM, according to Dinet, is discouragement they have received in earlier grades or experiences, that makes them feel like they are "not STEM people." Even if students come into the class with significant gaps in knowledge, all of that can be filled in between the high school class, the college lecture, and the college biology labs. Once students have successfully finished their first college biology class "the gains of being in the class are huge. Even though the class is only a few months, the gains they make are huge. They are way ahead -thinking like a scientist, being in the laboratory."

The way that STEM classes transfer into colleges can make a big difference for students in fields such as STEM, arts, or architecture - any field that has substantial laboratory or studio components. Unlike in the case of social sciences or humanities, early college students can find their transferable credits eating up their elective opportunities, leaving them with a schedule that might comprise all upper level classes with substantial time commitments. Dr. Bradley Smith's dissertation, a qualitative study of early college students to a four-year university, demonstrated that STEM and other time-intensive majors were an imperfect fit with the early college curriculum, leading to frustration over the credit load and sheer difficulty of the first terms of full-time college. Particularly if students were fully committed to graduating early, this could lead to an unbalanced schedule, much different than that of their age-peers on campus, and could lead to lower CPAs than their peers due to the sheer difficulty of the work.

Real Student: Simonai Santiago

Simonai was a star student in her high school in Lawrence, Massachusetts and attended Holy Cross University in Worcester, MA. Her advice for aspiring STEM students is:

  • 1. Form study groups immediately in your classes. Those people will become both your support and your friends.
  • 2. Watch how many tough STEM classes you take at a time. Because of transfer credits, you may lose out on some of the electives that can break up a killer schedule.
  • 3. Be ready to navigate academic support and especially office hours with professors and teaching assistants.

The STEM Path for Early College/

Dual Enrollment Students

Simonai Santiago was one of our standout early college students in Lawrence, and has made her way to College of the Holy Cross University in Worcester, Massachusetts. She fell in love with biology in her junior year class with Dr. Michael Piatelli and is now studying health studies (an interdisciplinary major).

A few key elements of the early college program helped her get a jump on STEM. The mix of lecture, discussion, and case studies in her biology class helped her develop study skills in the field. Through the early college program she was already used to developing a relationship with the professor through office hours: "I knew the story, I knew how this goes. Going to office hours was seamless for me. I was not afraid to talk to professors." Her coursework at Merrimack and her high school helped her get ahead in her program. Taking a full year of calculus, including a semester at Merrimack, helped her in math. Her AP class in chemistry helped her be prepared for chemistry at the college level. Taking government at Merrimack meant she could skip it at Holy Cross. Holy Cross was accepting of some credits and resistant to accepting others - my offer to stop by and talk to them about credits did prompt them to accept biology credit.

However, the first year was a struggle. At Merrimack, she took one class per term, and at Holy Cross, taking three STEM classes in a term was a lot for her to manage. Classes were difficult, and though Simonai persevered, she did switch her major from a biology/pre-med track to health studies, an interdisciplinary program that combined science and social science.

Based on her experience with her cohort at ALA, Simonai immediately began forming study groups at Holy Cross, and through doing this made friends with people in similar majors. As Holy Cross is a Predominantly White Institution (PWI), having this group of peers to connect to helped Simonai develop a good social network.

Simonai's experience of freshman year represents what can be positive and frustrating about applying the early college experience once students are in college full time. On the one hand, all the background and preparation cannot prepare for every college class, and particularly the full load of courses, living away from home, and fitting into a new social life. While the experience and credits of early college can keep students from falling down freshmanyear, it does not always mean that they are able to attain their own ambitions for themselves, and they still may need help navigating their next steps.

Real Teacher: Shannon Morey

Shannon is a Knowles fellow and physics teacher at Abbott Lawrence Academy. She teaches students in grades 9 to 12, and has taught them mathematics, chemistry, and physics. Her advice to prepare students for STEM success is:

  • • It is important to keep students motivated and excited about STEM, and not to discourage them about their abilities.
  • • Teaching students teamwork and group work skills takes time, but is important to their long-term success.
  • • College STEM classes need to change to become more active and engaged, so that students do not become discouraged with their gateway classes and continue in their majors.

Encouragement, Motivation, and STEM

Shannon Morey, a physics teacher in Lawrence, Massachusetts, remembers her own STEM experiences in high school and college when she thinks about the students she is teaching. She said,

I myself did not have a lot of STEM opportunities in my small rural high school. We had only two AP classes that I could take. The first term of college I realized I did not have the experience that other students had doing labs or writing lab reports. I had to work 10 times as hard that term to keep up.

However, she believes that unequal background is not the top problem in STEM, but encouragement motivation. She said,

When I teach students in 9th grade physics, I have to deal with a wide range of skills. But the main problem can be their experience with science. If they have had teachers who encouraged them in science, I can teach them skills, like determining a slope. But if they had a bad experience in STEM classes, and developed a mindset that they were not "STEM material," it is much harder to turn that around.

To get students ready for college classes, whether early college classes or their first year of full-time college, Morey works on a few key skills: how to work together as a team, and to observe the key norms of my classroom. This is part of the practice of complex instruction, which she learned as part of the Knowles fellowship, and implemented in her classroom.

Morey believes that colleges themselves need to change to allow more students to thrive in STEM majors and classes. She said,

For more students to be successful, college classes need to become more supportive for students. We put the onus of seeking out support on the student, instead of building a classroom that supports them throughout, and that uses techniques like active learning rather than lecture and PowerPoint. So, we need to work on our students' self-advocacy skills so they can get the help they need, but we also need to create the classes where students can be more successful.

(25 The Early College/Dual Enrollment Edge:

Research on STEM students in early college reveals:

  • 1. There can be a major dip in satisfaction for students in their first year of college-level STEM classes.
  • 2. This dip eventually goes back up, and students are as satisfied as their freshman level peers.
  • 3. Students in these programs make great gains in self-efficacy and seriousness, key areas for long-term success as adults.

The U-shaped Experience in a STEM Early College

Educational researcher Michael Sayler looked at the data generated by the 25-year history of the Texas Academy of Math and Science, founded in

1987 at the University of North Texas. These students, unlike almost all the rest in this book, took a leap of faith to leave their families and live on campus (in separate dorms) for 11th and 12th grade on a college campus. These students took college-level courses in math, science, and other STEM fields from the start, in the same classes as college freshman and sophomores.

Students in the program were adapting to many different changes through this program - they were living away from their families, they were taking college-level classes, and they were in a peer group that both shared their interests, but were also as academically talented as they were. Thus, students found themselves moving from a situation where they were top math students in their high school to one in which they were in the middle of the pack (or lower) in competitive classes and fields.

Sayler, reviewing the research and data, found that students in the program had an initial dip in feelings of self-esteem and well-being. Sayler wrote, "Over the first year of college, the TAMS students in this study experienced less satisfaction with what they were achieving in life, less satisfaction with personal safety, and less satisfaction about their future security." However, these STEM students then began to rebound:

In a study of TAMS students, 1 to 5 years after leaving TAMS (Boazman & Sayler, 2011), the average overall well-being was statistically the same as the level of personal well-being found in TAMS students at entrance to the program. They specifically reported elevated levels of satisfaction in their achievements, immediate standard of living, personal safety, and future security than age peers. They expressed powerful feelings of general self-efficacy and high levels of trait seriousness, two constructs related to facilitating success.

Resource Toolbox

Alaie, A. (2011). Early College High Schools: Lessons Learned in the College Science Classroom. Urban Education, 46(3), 426-439. doi: 10.1177/0042085910377847

Boazman, J. and Sayler, M. (2011). Personal Well-Being of Gifted Students Following Participation in an Early College-Entrance Program. Roeper Review, 33(2), 76-85.

Deming, D.J. and Noray, K.L. (2018). STEM Careers and Technological Change. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Sayler, M.F. (2015). Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science: 25 Years of Early College STEM Opportunities. Roeper Review, 37(1), 29-38. doi: 10.1080/02783193.2015.975773

Smith, B.M. (2019). From Early College to the University: A Case Study Exploring First-Semester Experiences (Doctoral dissertation, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte). North Carolina: Charlotte.

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