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SLCC + U = STEM success

In late September, people flooded into The Dumke Center for STEM Learning, Science, and Industry Building at Salt Lake City Community College’s (SLCC) Redwood Taylorsville campus. It was the second annual STEM Success Fair, a collaborative effort between the University of Utah and SLCC that gives undergraduate students the opportunity to connect with faculty, advisors, and resources from both institutions. Researchers from the Colleges of Science, Mines and Earth Sciences, and Engineering brought research posters and ran live demonstrations at dozens of tables to engage with undergraduates in a low stake setting. The fun, upbeat atmosphere aims to break down the intimidation factor of approaching STEM faculty for students who want to transfer to the U. The event was a success — 340 students participated that were majoring in math, science, engineering, education, computer science and even in business.

“SLCC’s campus is a much different environment than the U. Anything we can do to ease that transition; we want to do it,” said Craig Caldwell, co-principal investigator of the UPSTEM Initiative that funded the event and dean of the School for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering at SLCC. “It’s important for STEM students to engage with researchers. If you’re a first-generation college student, faculty can seem scary, like monsters. It’s hard to approach them on your own. We invite U and SLCC faculty to the STEM Success Fair to be in a casual setting with low stakes

The fair is part of the Utah Pathways STEM (UPSTEM) Initiative that was funded by a five-year, $1.05 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the largest private, nonprofit supporter of science education in the U.S. In 2017, HHMI awarded grants to 24 schools as part of their Inclusive Excellence Initiative that supports programs aimed at engaging diverse students in science at their campuses. The UPSTEM Initiative proposed building pathways to STEM from SLCC to the U to smooth the transition and to better support diverse learners. Nationally, students from historically excluded backgrounds make up most of the undergraduate transfer population. The U’s transfer students overwhelmingly come from SLCC, and nearly a quarter major in STEM, but only 20% of the students graduate within two years of transferring. These metrics highlight the need to address systemic issues blocking transfer student success.

“Faculty aren’t usually at recruitment events so having them there makes the STEM Success Fair unique. Here, students can start to form a relationship with faculty so that they know at least one professor when they transfer to the U campus,” said Holly Godsey, principal investigator of the UPSTEM Initiative, director of STEM Initiatives in the College of Education, and associate professor in the Dept. of Geology and Geophysics at the U. “A lot of transfer students think they want to major in pre-med but at the STEM Success Fair, they meet researchers from many different fields and might fall in love with something they didn’t expect.”

Just ask Zach Knettles, a first-year U transfer student who sat at the STEM education table at the STEM Success Fair. Knettles chatted with curious people that passed by, sharing his experience with future transfer hopefuls. Knettles knew what they were going through. Last year Knettles had completed an A.A. degree in special education at SLCC and figured he’d continue on that path. Then he attended last year’s STEM Success Fair where he met a researcher in the Geology & Geophysics department at the U. The topic interested him.

“I just kind of guessed my way through the first two years of college,” Knettles said. “Then I started talking to these geologists about their field, about the courses offered where you go on fields trips outside the classroom,” said Knettles. “I love adventures and being outside. I realized I could pursue this other field while still staying in education.”

Knettles transferred into the U’s dual Bachelor of Science and Master of Education (BS/Med) in Secondary Science Teaching pathway, which streamlines requirements for a BS degree, a MEd degree and a State of Utah teaching license into a combined program that allows students to become a licensed secondary teacher in as little as 5 years. Knettles’s emphasis is in Earth Science, a track he chose because of his conversation with the faculty member from the U’s Geology & Geophysics department.

A major goal of the UPSTEM Initiative grant is to bring disciplinary faculty from both institutions together to develop a shared set of learning outcomes for STEM courses to better prepare students to apply knowledge they learned at SLCC to the upper division courses at the U.

Another goal is to improve data collecting and data sharing about student outcomes for transfer students. Some of the unintended benefits of this grant include new research collaborations between faculty from the SLCC and the U and spin-off faculty learning communities that focus on inclusive teaching practices and mentoring. The work will continue — HHMI extended the UPSTEM Initiative for two more years.

“It’s cool to see how the U and SLCC are working together,” said Allyson Rocks, academic program manager of STEM Initiatives in the College of Education and the brains behind the STEM Success Fair. “That’s what we want students to know —both sides are working hard to support them, to build that bridge that will take them across the finish line.”