Retaining non-traditional students in STEM classrooms

Yale News
Monday, January 28, 2019

The most important thing is to believe in your students. Once you believe that all students can succeed, and that it is worth your time to help them succeed, everything else is a detail,” said Andrew Houck, professor of electrical engineering and principal investigator in the Houck Lab for Quantum Computing and Condensed Matter Physics with Microwave Photons at Princeton University.

Houck will visit Yale on Thursday, Jan. 31 and Friday, Feb. 1 to present seminars for the Poorvu Center’s Diversity and Education Series and the Quantum Institute’s Colloquium Series. Houck and his colleagues are responsible for redesigning the first-year curriculum at Princeton’s School of Engineering and Applied Science after analyzing the negative impacts of attrition rates of under-represented students in the school.

“There are three reasons I can think of to strive for a more diverse student body,” said Houck. “The first is selfish; I want to see great scientific breakthroughs and engineering innovations in my lifetime. If we are systematically missing out on exceptional people, we are systematically missing out on a huge number of discoveries that could have been. The second is about community; people with different perspectives recognize and approach problems differently, and our community is more robust due to this variety. The third is moral; education is a powerful mechanism for change, and we are participating in an injustice if we are biased in providing access to a high-quality education.”

Working with Houck to organize the visit were Mitchell Smooke, acting dean of te School of Engineering and Applied Science; Steve Girvin, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics and professor of applied physics; Florian Carle, manager of the Yale Quantum Institute; and Nancy Niemi, director of faculty teaching initiatives at the Poorvu Center. The collaborative two-day visit is part of the larger Diversity and Educations Series sponsored by the Office of the Provost and the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. Houck’s experience with introducing an alternate path for first-year requirements that teaches the necessary math and physics skills in the context of engineering examples drew the attention of the group.

“Everyone who is capable of benefiting from university education should be able to do so,” said Girvin, who also served as deputy provost for research for 10 years and worked to build a collaborative approach to scientific excellence.

The Poorvu Center seminar, “Improving access with an application-focused approach to engineering requirements,” will focus on the strategies Houck used to improve student retention and student affect. Houck plans to “discuss [Princeton’s] new courses as well as the process of developing and introducing the new curriculum.”

“We aim to work with colleagues from varied disciplines, in part by inviting them to campus to discuss issues of inclusion in curriculum, instruction, and in program development. We learn a great deal from their experiences at other institutions,” said Niemi. “Andrew has helped Princeton improve their Freshman Scholars Institute and the overall curriculum at the School of Engineering and Applied Science by striving for inclusion in the classroom and lab.”

Similar to Princeton’s Freshman Scholars Institute, Yale launched the First-year Scholars program in 2013. FSY is a “summer bridge program for incoming first-years who are the first in their families to attend college, had low-income backgrounds growing up, or otherwise come from segments of the population who might not traditionally have had access to elite institution.” The program has helped the university expand the socio-economic diversity of incoming classes. Current Yale first-years set a record for socio-economic diversity with 20% receiving federal Pell Grants and 18% representing first-generation college students in their families.

“Like all Yale students, First-year Scholars are very bright, but they may not have had the advantages some students had in terms of preparation for college,” said Girvin. “For example, the summer opportunity to strengthen their foundation in mathematics can be crucial to success in the STEM courses at Yale.”

“Summer programs play an important role in increasing retention of non-traditional students; they facilitate the creation of a strong community and prepare students for both the curricular rigor and the everyday rhythm of college life,” said Houck. “But, we have also found that summer programs alone were not sufficient at Princeton, and it took curricular innovation in the academic year to make significant strides in retaining non-traditional students.”

To learn more about the strides taken to retain non-traditional students in STEM classrooms, register to attend the Poorvu Center’s Diversity and Education seminar on Jan. 31 at 12:30 p.m.The seminar is open to faculty, postdocs, and teaching fellows.

To learn more about Houck’s colloquium, visit the Quantum Institute’s website.

Patrick C. O’Brien - Yale News