PATHWAYS TO STEM

By Paul Gabrielsen, senior science writer, University Marketing and Communications

For the six years of her son’s short life, Cristin Dixon learned everything she could about neurodegenerative brain disorders, hoping to find a diagnosis. When he passed away three and a half years ago, she still had no definitive answer as to what had afflicted him.

“For six years I took care of him 24 hours a day,” Dixon said. “I was his caretaker, his advocate.”

She is not done yet. Now a student at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC), Dixon is determined to help other families in the same situation by becoming a medical researcher. She plans to transfer to the University of Utah next fall to complete a four-year degree and work toward medical school. Confronting her will be a bewildering array of regulations and complicated transfer arrangements that will prove challenging to navigate.

She will join the roughly 7,000 students at the U who transferred from other institutions and faced similar challenges. Recognizing the need to help these students successfully transfer, especially in fields related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the University of Utah and SLCC have won a competitive $1 million grant to help transfer students succeed, regardless of background, and improve STEM diversity.

The award is one of only 24 Inclusive Excellence grants awarded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to institutions nationwide to “help increase the capacity of colleges and universities to effectively engage all students so that they can be successful in science, especially undergraduates who enter four-year institutions via nontraditional pathways.”

Utah’s project is called the Utah Pathways to STEM initiative, or UPSTEM. Holly Godsey, director of Student Success & Teacher Development in the U’s Center for Science & Mathematics Education (CSME), will direct the UPSTEM program.  The core project team also includes Craig Caldwell, dean of science, math and engineering at SLCC; Jordan Gerton, director of the CSME; Martha Bradley, senior associate vice president for Undergraduate Studies at the U; and Diane Pataki, associate dean for Student Services in the College of Science at the U. 

Funding from HHMI will help fulfill five main objectives. First, the U and SLCC will create new degree pathways for SLCC students that align with freshman and sophomore STEM curricula at the U. While most transfer programs between two-year and four-year institutions “articulate” courses, or designate equivalences between courses at the two schools, UPSTEM will create a fully articulated associate’s degree program between the institutions that will maximize transfer efficiency.

“That’s unusual,” said Craig Caldwell. “Although the University articulates individual courses, inefficiencies in the system often lead to delays in student transfers or loss of credit. With the new program, if a student finishes a program at SLCC, they have an incentive to graduate because that program transfers as a block into a program at the U.”

As part of this objective, SLCC and the U will hire an academic advisor that works at both institutions. “They’ll understand what’s going on at SLCC and what’s going on at the U and they will provide information in both directions,” Godsey said.

Second, UPSTEM will form a team to share data between schools, enabling both to make decisions that will better serve their students. “We can find out which classes students took at SLCC, and when they come to the U, we’ll be able to track their course selections and monitor their degree progress,” Godsey said.

Third, the University of Utah will develop a curriculum to help students understand the nature of scientific inquiry. “When students take science classes, they learn about science but they often don’t learn the bigger picture of what it means to actually do science,” Godsey said. Students will take these classes at the U while still attending SLCC.  This new curriculum will also incorporate instructional approaches that help students from a broad range of educational and experiential backgrounds to succeed in STEM disciplines, and will thus serve as a model for future courses that seek to incorporate more inclusive teaching practices.

Fourth, faculty from both schools will come together to use the shared data between institutions to address transfer student issues and concerns.

Fifth, UPSTEM will survey students in the U’s College of Science to determine what additional changes might help improve the environment, both inside and outside the classroom, to better support the success of transfer students from a variety of backgrounds.

Caldwell said that navigating higher education is challenging enough on its own. Adding to the challenge is the fact that SLCC students often come from first-generation, refugee or nontraditional student backgrounds. “All of those things create very complicated, entangled systems that students must navigate in order to be successful,” he said.

Dixon said that her mentors and academic counselors have been critical to helping her navigate those systems. “If I didn’t have them helping me, I’d be completely lost in knowing what to do or what direction to be going in,” she said. She likes the small school aspect of SLCC and the open door policies of her allies in SLCC’s STEM advising office.

“Students will enter a transfer pipeline to a trusted organization where they’ll continue to receive some of the same resources that they received while at SLCC,” said Tung Thantrong, program manager of SLCC’s TRIO-STEM advising program. “It will bridge some of those gaps where students seek a sense of belonging and mentorship.”

Both schools acknowledge the critical cooperation and collaboration that made this grant possible. Caldwell said that collaborators at the U have shown “remarkable fortitude, vision and compassion for our students at SLCC.”

“Having the right people behind you is important,” Dixon said. For her and other future transfer students, the UPSTEM collaboration means a bridge of supporting hands from one institution to another, shepherding students through the transfer process and knocking down barriers on the path to their dream.