Virginia Tech, Radford University awarded $1 million grants to solve issues with science, math education

BLACKSBURG, RADFORD, Va. (WDBJ7) Recent studies show college students in fields that are vital to our workforce are struggling to keep up.

So instead of fixing the student, which had been the policy, schools now want to fix the institutions themselves..

So two universities in our area received $1 million each from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to fix that problem.

511 schools across the country submitted pre-proposals for the grant to fix issues in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math fields of study.

Only 24 were selected. Of those, both Virginia Tech and Radford University will now help students in these increasingly difficult fields.

Jill Sible is the Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and will serve as the initiative's program director.

She explained of the STEM fields, "These curricular structures often make it difficult for students to find the space and time to do undergraduate research."

It leads to more students dropping out, changing majors, or graduating late, meaning paying more tuition.

Data shows it's even worse for community college transfer students, first generation students, women, and minorities.

About a third of first-year undergraduates who intend to study in fields related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are underrepresented minorities, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.

Orion Rogers is the Dean of the Artis College of Science and Technology at Radford University.

He explained, discussing the challenges in STEM classes, "You have to devote a lot of hours to understand the content, to master the vocabulary, to apply the concepts, to use the mathematics. It's a lot of skills required."

Sible added, regarding the issues with the groups listed above, "There is often an implicit bias that we as faculty bring to the classroom and don't even recognize."

That can perpetuate a stereotype threat that some students perceive to mean they won't succeed.

Virginia Tech will use the grant money to analyze student data with teachers of who's succeeding and who's not, what's working and what needs to change?

"Sitting down together to develop some creative new ideas about ways to build experiences like internships and undergraduate research into the curriculum," Sible explained.

Radford will purchase new technology to use in teaching teachers first, and eventually students, to make things interactive and hands on, and retain those students.

Orion said, "They'll be using 3D printers, they'll be using laser cutters, they'll be working with faculty members to incorporate the Making culture into their knowledge base and understanding of science."

These $1 million grants will be distributed over five years, starting in September.

Radford will use this school year educating teachers, and then implement new teaching styles next school year.

Virginia Tech will begin work immediately in September with a trial and error system over the five years.

Virginia Tech said in a release given out Thursday, the team working on this issue will be made up of Sible, Sarah Karpanty of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, Michele Deramo from the Office of Inclusion and Diversity, Debby Good of the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Mike Bowers from the School of Neuroscience in the College of Science.

The project team wants to focus on implementing inclusive teaching and designing inclusive curricula.

“[First-generation and transfer] students, in simple terms, just have different backgrounds, needs and expectations,” said Karpanty, an assistant department head. “It’s really explicitly being aware of that in the classroom, in your mentoring, and how you design the curriculum.”

The three different departments will begin the process of implementing changes. With each year, Sible expects more departments and faculty members to participate.

“We have already had preliminary conversations with other science departments,” said Sible, “ ... that they’re eager to participate, to be a part of this in the ensuing years.”

Karpanty said the participating departments are already doing certain things well.

“The idea is for us to do it even better and then share what we learn with others on campus” Karpanty said.

While setting an example, faculty will adapt the way they teach to better support student learning. Karpanty said “the trick will be to modify curricula so transfer students can complete science degrees in a timely manner and still learn material needed to be competitive in the job market.”

“It’s very hard for transfer students to come in and finish in two years. There’s so many science courses that they have to take, and many of them are here for two-and-a-half, three, or even more years,” she said.

Michele Deramo, the director of Diversity Education and Initiatives in the Office for Inclusion and Diversity, said that Virginia Tech has good structures in place. Such initiatives as InclusiveVT and the Diversity Development Institute help shape an inclusive environment in and outside the classroom.

“If you create an inclusive, safe, welcoming, and accommodating climate in the classroom, students are going to thrive. They are going to perform better, and they’re going to persist,” said Deramo. “Conversely, studies have shown that when people perceive that they are being judged through the lens of stereotypes, they tend to underperform.”

Debby Good, an associate professor of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, said this issue really hits home for her.

“I was a first-generation college student. I see that we can make some real progress and real advances in helping first-generation [students] navigate through their years in college,” Good said.

Mike Bowers, an assistant professor in the School of Neuroscience, is excited to get the initiative started within his own department.

“I have a great interest in trying to help young people acclimate into the university setting and to be able to attribute to a curriculum change is really something I’m looking forward to achieving in my department,” Bowers said.

Out of the 24 institutions chosen to be in the initiative, two universities in Virginia were selected. Radford University has also been awarded with a $1 million grant. Sible said she’s excited to work with a nearby institution.

“We see some tremendous opportunities to work together and partner on our initiatives, which have some definite shared goals, but with an opportunity to learn from each other as well,” Sible said.

This isn’t the first time Sible worked with the HHMI. The institute has funded science education projects that she’s worked on in the past.

“I think it helped with an understanding of their goals and also the motivation for me to pull a team together and apply in the first place,” said Sible. “It was definitely worth our time and effort trying to be a part of this.”

Virginia Tech, Radford University, and the other 22 schools taking part will meet in August at the HHMI’s headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland