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Improving STEM student retention

Closeup of Candis Claiborn
Candis Claiborn

An interdisciplinary research team led by a Washington State University professor will study ways to improve retention of students in engineering and computer science.

Candis Claiborn, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, along with team members Olusola Adesope and Angela Minichiello, will look at ways of keeping students – particularly women and underrepresented minorities – from dropping out of computer science and engineering.

The research is being funded by a $200,000 National Science Foundation grant.

According to PayScale’s college salary report, nearly all of the highest-paying college degrees are in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, with early career salaries typically over $70,000.

“Despite the lucrative career opportunities, many students are not sticking around in these majors and finishing their degrees,” Claiborn said.

Minority students, including African American, American Indian, and Hispanic students, are underrepresented in science and engineering majors, and tend to drop out at a higher rate than White or Asian students. Similarly, women who begin science or engineering degrees leave for other majors at higher rates than men.

Researchers have found that students are more likely to persist and be successful when they participate in “high impact engagement activities” like undergraduate research, entrepreneurship programs, study abroad and community engagement or service learning.

“Being engaged in these activities is especially good for students who might be at risk of dropping out or changing majors,” Claiborn said. “The problem is that only a small fraction of students takes advantage of these opportunities.”

Adesope, a Boeing Distinguished Professor of STEM education and professor of educational psychology at WSU, and Minichiello, an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Education at Utah State University, will design surveys and focus group interviews to tease out the various factors contributing to a lack of student participation, whether they be personal, social, institutional or financial.

“Do students know about all the opportunities out there? Do they lack time because they’re working or doing a lot of homework? We want to find out,” Claiborn said.

The team will also examine ways in which more students can be encouraged to engage in collaborative and creative activities.

Engineering/computer science student participation in high impact engagement activities has not been previously studied in the setting of a rural, land-grant university like WSU, making this research particularly significant. The project also benefits from its multidisciplinary team.

“My hope is that partnerships like this can help engineering professors like me think beyond just research and teaching, to spend time figuring out the best ways to ensure student success for students of all demographics,” Claiborn said.

For rural campuses, there may be a lack of opportunities for internships or co-op programs during the school year. “We want to see what activities can be encouraged for rural schools like WSU, as opposed to a school in a bigger city like Seattle,” Claiborn said.

Improving student retention will not only help students find fulfilling, fruitful careers, but also help create a more inclusive workforce for the innovative jobs of tomorrow, according to Claiborn.

“As a public land-grant institution, we have a special mandate to serve the people of our state,” she said. “We owe it to them to have a student body that looks like our state.”

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