Variety is said to be the spice of life, but it turns out to be an active ingredient in the learning process as well.
Gretchen M. Adams, a chemistry instructor, the director of the department's Undergraduate Studies office, and one of this year's Distinguished Teacher-Scholars, will use a series of workshops starting this fall to emphasize the importance of classroom diversity and to offer techniques for improving the recruitment, retention and long-term success of underrepresented undergraduate students.
Underrepresented students make up about 15 percent of the student population annually, though graduation rates for them are well below the average of the general student population. The science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines historically have fared even worse.
"There is no quick fix," she said. "It takes a long-term commitment and it takes a culture of support by department and college leaders."
Adams said her workshops will share processes developed by her department that in the past decade have led to significant increases in underrepresented student access.
"We've been working on this for a long time and we've developed some good programs that are the result of learning from our mistakes," she said.
That trial-and-error process led to the creation of the Merit Program for Emerging Scholars, which is offered jointly through the departments of chemistry and mathematics, and in association with the School of Integrative Biology and School of Molecular and Cellular Biology. Adams directs the Chemistry Merit Program.
Most of the underrepresented students - which includes underrepresented minorities, students from rural high schools or those who are the first in their family to attend college - are activitely recruited under the merit program through the formation of partnerships with campus academic advisers.
Adams said it is those students who need extra guidance because they fit the profile of those most likely to drop out, even as they are posting good grades, which has led to the conclusion that other factors besides academic ability may be at work.
"We have to find out why these students are dropping out," she said. "It's more than just academics - it's a question of how to navigate the system. We're building them up academically, but we haven't necessarily created a community for them."
That's where the merit program comes into play, setting up a mentoring and academic support network that leads to greater confidence and, ultimately, improved retention and graduation rates. In the past decade, the Chemistry Merit Program has grown from 80 students to nearly 500.
"There's something everyone can be doing and it's something we should all be thinking about," she said, noting that serving underrepresented students is a university objective in the most recent campus strategic plan. "What we do as instructors in the classroom is critical."
She said there are a number of classroom techniques available to increase underrepresented student comfort levels and participation. Techniques include offering more applicable, real-world problems and labs to encourage open discussion, encouraging online collaboration forums and using video to provide a personalized touch and a familiar class connection point.
Adams said, because her introductory chemistry course is so large (about 350 students), she provides a weekly video introduction outlining what the class will be covering and any pertinent assignments; all of her hints provided in the online homework are also done in video format rather than the traditional text hint.
"I'm trying to make them feel like I'm there, like someone is there to help them get everything in order," she said. "Part of that is to have them talking together and interacting as much as possible."
To that end, she trains her teaching assistants to be especially attuned to issues affecting underrepresented students and to encourage maximum engagement both in class and online.
She said the multiple points of contacts can lead to early intervention - such as recommending additional office hours or one-on-one mentoring.
"It's important to help with the smaller things, because it's those things that can become big things that lead to retention issues," she said. "It takes careful investigation, planning and time."
When she selects her merit program teaching assistants, she considers those hands-on skills and dedication to helping underrepresented students, and she provides specific training to help the TAs, and in turn the students, excel. She said the program even assists low-income students in finding grants and other financial resources, and helps provide undergraduates research opportunities.
"We just decided it was really important for the department, for campus, for STEM fields and society in the future," she said, noting she is a former merit student. "I know its benefits personally."
The Distinguished Teacher-Scholar Program, sponsored by the Teaching Advancement Board and the Office of the Provost, honors and supports outstanding instructors who take an active role in promoting learning on campus. Although the appointment lasts one year, honorees carry the designation with them throughout their careers. (List of past recipients)
Increasing the Retention and Academic Performance of Underrepresented Students
With Distinguished Teacher-Scholar Gretchen M. Adams
Participants are asked to commit to attending the entire eight-part workshop series.
Workshop dates: Sept. 26, Oct. 17, Nov. 21, Dec. 19, Feb. 13, March 13, April 10 and May 15
Time: 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. (lunch provided)
APPLY ONLINE BY SEPT. 12