UTSA gets $1.5 million grant to support STEM students

Funding to develop, implement new instructional methods, curricular changes

SAN ANTONIO – The University of Texas at San Antonio has received a four-year, $1.5 million grant to improve student success and the diversity of students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics  fields. 

According to a news release, the grant from the National Science Foundation's Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program, seeks to enhance the quality of undergraduate STEM education at HSIs while increasing retention and graduation rates of undergraduate students pursuing degrees in STEM fields at Hispanic-Serving institutions.

UTSA awards 1,045 bachelor's degrees in STEM fields each year. Among those graduates, 52.6 percent identify themselves as Hispanic, African-American, American Indian or Alaskan Native.
"The Texas Workforce Commission has estimated that 60,000 new scientists and engineers will be needed to meet workforce needs over the next decade, which means the annual graduation rate of scientists and engineers needs to double," said UTSA Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Kimberly Andrews Espy. "At UTSA, we know that there is certain coursework in our STEM curriculum that is especially challenging for many of our students. By addressing this and teaching the curriculum in a new way, we can maintain the rigor of our STEM degree programs while improving retention and graduation rates."

According to the National Center for Higher Education, only 55.5 percent of U.S. students who pursue a STEM degree will graduate with a STEM degree.

Gateway courses, which are lower-division courses that students must complete to proceed through their degree programs, are particularly challenging for STEM majors. In fall 2016, the pass rates for UTSA gateway courses in physics, calculus, chemistry and engineering analysis were 63, 61, 52 and 51 percent, respectively. These pass rates decreased an additional 4.2 percent for Hispanic students majoring in engineering and six percent for Hispanic students majoring in science or math.

To improve undergraduate student persistence from lower-division to upper-division courses, a team of UTSA faculty members from science, engineering, and education and human development will implement six strategies, building on the Language, Literacy and STEM (LA-STEM) Framework. The framework is rooted in the belief that literacy skills support success across all academic disciplines and are a necessity for students learning STEM concepts.
Using the LA-STEM Framework, UTSA aims to:

Develop and improve undergraduate STEM students' integrated understanding of academic literacy and core competencies.
Create interdisciplinary professional development lesson study groups of instructors to engage in sustainable instructional and curricular change.
Align STEM curricula between lower and upper-division courses.
Develop a near-peer mentoring program for sophomore and junior level STEM students.
Provide research opportunities and professional development activities for STEM students. 
Evaluate the relevance and effectiveness of the institutional curricular redesign.

In addition, innovative cross-disciplinary partnerships will be established between UTSA STEM and Education and Human Development faculty members to create groups of faculty leaders that promote academic literacy in the development of strong university-level STEM teaching and learning.
"We know that there are certain courses that challenge our students," said Heather Shipley, vice provost of academic affairs and dean of UTSA's University College. "By redeveloping the way we teach those courses, we will be able to maintain the academic standards of our curriculum while making the curriculum more accessible to our students. We intend to create best practices that will not only help UTSA students succeed but will also serve as a model for other colleges and universities around the country."
The program will benefit STEM undergraduates at UTSA by increasing their retention rates, critical thinking skills, professional knowledge and self-efficacy. Taken together, this will support timely completion of undergraduate degrees and will increase the marketability and job placement of UTSA graduates.

The grant team will be led by Shipley, Mark Appleford (biomedical engineering), Juliet Langman (bicultural-bilingual studies) Kelly Nash (physics and astronomy) and Jorge Solis (bicultural-bilingual studies) with support from Krystel Castillo (Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute at UTSA), Harry Millwater (mechanical engineering) and Orlando Graves Bolanos (interdisciplinary teaching and learning and the DoSeum).