Building a Community of New STEM Students

Through the Summer STEM Academy, College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics faculty offered students tantalizing appetizers that introduced them to the multitude of opportunities NSM can offer.

How can we build community on a largely commuter campus? That was the big question Merri Lynn Casem, chair and professor of biological science, and faculty members from the five departments of the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics faced as they looked at ways to improve student retention within their college.

“With a large commuter population, we can become an ‘educational drive-thru,’ where it’s easy to change your mind and switch out of STEM entirely,” Casem says. “Additionally, we have a sizeable number of students who change their majors away from something like biology to public health or kinesiology because they are focused on careers in healthcare. Those programs are great, but we’ve then missed an opportunity to expose them to careers in our fields that would also allow them to make an impact in healthcare. If those students had more of a sense of belonging, if they better identified with their campus and their major, and if they knew that our college would help when classes get tough, they would feel like part of the community and be more likely to persist.”

Summer STEM students

The Think Like Einstein course, which is designed to help first-year students understand how mathematicians, geologists, chemists, physicists, and biologists think about and solve problems, offers a strong academic foundation. But to build a stronger sense of community, faculty determined that it is important to touch base with students even earlier and offer a summer experience that allows them to get comfortable with navigating the campus, participate in a hands-on lab experience modeled after the Think Like Einstein course, and interact with faculty from all five departments.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” Casem says. “Exposing students to what it’s like to be in different kinds of labs reinforces the idea that if you are a math or science student, there is more to those fields than you realize. Through the Summer STEM Academy, we were able to offer students tantalizing appetizers that introduced them to the multitude of opportunities NSM can offer and connected them with an amazing group of peer mentors, our Team Leaders, who served as role models and assured students that they are valued, they belong here, and we can help them succeed.”

The Academy Experience

The Summer STEM Academy was offered in two weeklong sessions for incoming freshmen and community college transfer students in July and August, drawing 82 students in its first year. A grant from the National Science Foundation supported summer 2022’s STEM Academy and another planned for summer 2023.

The Academy included the “CSI CSUF: Tuffy Titan Is Missing!” lab experience in chemistry and biochemistry, which offered students the chance to analyze crime scene evidence and review interviews with “suspects” to determine who stole a stuffed Tuffy Titan, Cal State Fullerton’s mascot. It also featured a geology module in which students worked in teams to compare the physical properties of minerals to discover the characteristics that geologists use to identify them.

Summer STEM students

“All of our instructors did a fabulous job, encouraging problem-solving through teamwork and reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of science and math. Experiences like these could inspire a student who decides biology is not their thing to consider that maybe geology or math or physics is,” Casem says.

Many of the upper-class Team Leaders are also peer mentors for Think Like Einstein, and Casem says they emphasized to Academy participants that they were happy to be resources for them as they embarked on their college journey.

“I have nothing but praise for these Team Leaders and their professionalism and dedication,” Casem says. “Their involvement was integral to the success of this Academy and to our overarching mission. The success of programs like this one means that we are retaining students, especially those from underrepresented groups. Some of these students will go on to become faculty, and there’s a real need for diversity among math and science faculty so students can be inspired by professors who look like them or have similar life experiences.”

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