UMass Boston

$300K NSF Grant Funds Research on Improving Success, Equity in Chemistry Education

12/15/2020| DeWayne Lehman

The Chemistry Department and Division of Student Affairs have been awarded a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant for developing and investigating an asset-based supplemental course to increase student success in undergraduate general chemistry.

Students hold up a beaker in a chemistry lab.

“ An asset-based approach looks to leverage students’ gifts instead of identifying and fixing their weaknesses. ”

The project, led by Chemistry Professor Hannah Sevian and Dean of Students and Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs John Silveria, aims “to develop and study a novel asset-based supplemental course that leverages the students’ many strengths to help them succeed in general chemistry,” according to the award abstract.

The research focuses on tracking the success of students who enroll in a one-credit supplemental course, CHEM 105, that runs alongside the General Chemistry I course. CHEM 105 is offered to students who are at risk of failing the general chemistry course. The goal is to reduce failure rates in General Chemistry I and contribute to understanding how at-risk students at a diverse university can succeed in general chemistry. Previous studies have shown that remediation and deficit-based approaches do not provide significant long-term benefits to students.

“What we know from decades of research is that the effects of remediation don’t last beyond the particular course that they target,” said Sevian, and this is particularly the case for students traditionally underrepresented in STEM. “An asset-based approach looks to leverage students’ gifts instead of identifying and fixing their weaknesses.” She explains that critical theory and sociocultural capital theory provide guidance in focusing on who students are and why they are successful.

The new supplemental course aims to support student success by providing opportunities in a group setting to practice key skills, drawing on the particular strengths of student participants needed for success in general chemistry, including mathematical and study skills. The course recognizes and builds on strengths that students have developed in other areas of their lives, channeling them toward their own and each other's academic success in chemistry. For example, the ability to navigate multiple cultural landscapes, speak other languages, manage financial stresses, and juggle multiple responsibilities are assets of many students at UMass Boston. In the supplemental course, students channel these strengths to navigate the culture of chemistry, unpack the language of chemistry problems, arrange the conversions of units in problems, and efficiently organize exam studying.

“The notion of using asset-based training to help students overcome challenges with a particular course is similar in the training we do in Student Affairs with leadership training via OSLCE (Office of Student Leadership and Community Engagement) or RA training in residence life or Orientation leader training. While the subject matter varies, the strategy remains the same,” said Silveria. “This program is a pilot for how we may look at working across the academic/student affairs landscape to create a model replicated in other areas of the academy.”

According to Sevian, the pilot is showing early success. Half of the 253 students who took CHEM 115 in spring 2020 were eligible to take CHEM 105 based on their performance during the first week of that semester on a diagnostic test that the American Chemical Society has developed for colleges to use for this purpose. Of this group, 41 elected to take CHEM 105. These students performed as well on average in final course grade as students in CHEM 115 who were not invited to take CHEM 105. The CHEM 105 students also outperformed students for the top course grades (B and up), compared to students who were invited but did not enroll in CHEM 105.

“A larger question is, once we figure out how to do this for General Chemistry I, can we do this with other high-DFW courses, so that we can create an equitable landscape for all of our students,” Sevian said, referring to courses with high failure and withdrawal rates.

Students in CHEM 105 the past two semesters have articulated many ways that the course has been valuable to them. One student shared appreciation for “being able to use specific strategies that we figured out and learned in this class to grasp concepts that were difficult in CHEM 115.” Another student spoke about picking up “study tips and study habits that will benefit me for my whole college career.” A third student valued using their own language capacity to learn ways to interpret “the professor’s language.” And another student had advice to offer fellow students at UMass Boston: “One thing I have taken away is taking one step at a time. Think about tomorrow’s test now, but while you’re doing that, you are also studying for your final exam.”

“The asset-based approach that is being taken to build the CHEM 105 course is an example of how UMass Boston embraces education as a public good that creates opportunity for students to flourish,” said Chancellor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco. “It is a model of how students who are educated here are able to thrive because they can employ the many strengths they bring to their own and each other's education. I congratulate Professor Hannah Sevian and Dean of Students John Silveria for their important endeavors in the domain.”

Indeed, one reviewer of the project noted, “The outcomes of this project could not only boost student success at UMass Boston in chemistry but could have meaningful impacts on students' lives as they are able to persist in STEM degrees and view themselves as capable scholars. This work could have significant impacts for other institutions with large non-traditional student populations.”

The results of research will be developed into an internal report to be shared with upper administration, to support realignment of resources to better support student success in gateway courses and increase retention at the university, according to Sevian.

About UMass Boston
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