Smith’s project will connect college, high school instructors to improve success of STEM students

The University of Maine seeks to improve first-year students’ transition from high school STEM classes to college courses in the same subjects.

Michelle Smith, an associate professor in the School of Biology and Ecology, will spearhead the project for which the university was awarded nearly $155,000 by the National Science Foundation.

There’s a lot of work to be done; national data indicate fewer than half of first-year undergraduates who start in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields have graduated with a degree in one those areas six years later.

Most of the attrition occurs between the first and second year of college.

In addition, undergraduates from backgrounds underrepresented in STEM fields — including first-generation college students — leave STEM majors at higher rates than their classmates, according to data.

Students often say teaching methods used in introductory STEM college courses — which differ significantly from those in high school science classes — are a major reason why they leave those majors.

“In preparation for the grant, we observed both college and high school classrooms and found that college students listen to lecture more and have fewer opportunities to work with their peers compared to high school students,” says Smith.

“Through this grant we will connect college and high school instructors together to bridge the gap between the different classroom environments and design materials to help students with the instructional transition.

“Helping students with the transition from high school to college is important and we hope that outcomes of our work reach all students, including those who are the first in their families to attend college.”

Smith is a fitting choice to tackle the issue. In 2015, she was awarded the C. Ann Merrifield Professorship in Life Science Education for teaching ability and outstanding research in science education.

Her heralded research has focused on how to help students learn biology and how to help teachers adopt promising educational practices.

UMaine Provost Jeffrey Hecker and MacKenzie Stetzer, an assistant professor of physics, will work with Smith.

The university is collaborating with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on the two-year project. Both schools will develop Faculty Learning Communities (FLCs).

“FLCs provide a long-term professional development support network that faculty can use to discuss ideas and work together on making changes in the classroom,” says Smith.

“This form of professional development is powerful for promoting instructional transformations.”

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777