Building a STEM Program That Grows

By Sonya Stinson

In North Carolina, students are getting excited about science, thanks to a revised curriculum and more opportunities.

In just seven years, Gaston College, in North Carolina, has seen enrollment in its associate of science (AS) program spike 197 percent, while the AS graduation rate has risen 94 percent.

Credit Gaston’s award-winning science-education initiative, called SPARC3 (STEM Persistence and Retention through Curriculum, Cohort, and Centralization), for those impressive stats.

History of the STEM program

Launched in 2009, the program has revised the college’s science and math curriculum; introduced an intrusive advising model; and expanded opportunities for science students to gain research experience on campus and with local industry partners. Nearly 30 SPARC3 scholarships have been awarded, with funding from a $600,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant and two annual $25,000 grants from a private donor.

The success of SPARC3 has helped Gaston become one of only two U.S. community colleges to earn certification from the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Science Education program. In January, the program won the 2016 Bellwether Award in the Instructional Programs and Services category.

SPARC3 Director Ashley Hagler, who also teaches at Gaston, says one of the best outcomes of the initiative is the boost in student engagement. In one of Hagler’s evening genetics classes, students often get so deeply involved that they are still hanging around past 10 p.m., with the maintenance crew shooing them out of the building. Hagler says the same kind of engagement is happening in other classes, too. Science and math chair Melissa Armstrong adds that while that kind of enthusiasm isn’t universal, the program’s popularity is steadily growing.

“We still have students who sit in the back of the class with their ball caps pulled down and don’t want to do anything — and I think that’s true of any educational institution,” Armstrong says. “But more of them are excited, more of them are interested. They are asking for research projects to do for honors credit in the courses. I have more asking for honors credit than I have time to supervise now.”

The program started with a cohort of about 75 students taking entry-level science and statistics courses. The traditional lecture method for teaching those classes was exchanged for one focusing on elements such as case studies and guided inquiry, Armstrong says. Once those courses had been revised, more advanced science courses received overhauls, too. Now, with SPARC3 expanded to include all AS enrollees, as well as some other students, it affects nearly 400 students.

Building to scale

Scaling up has come with a few challenges, including figuring out how to pack in enough courses to meet demand. Financial resources are also being stretched thin as more students become involved, Armstrong says. Laboratory fees help fund some of the projects, but Armstrong has to do some careful budgeting to make the money go as far as it can. Hagler adds that a flurry of grant writing is underway to try to bring in additional funds.

SPARC3 focuses primarily on students planning to transfer to four-year colleges, though there are some students in the revised science and math courses who are on workforce-development tracks. A growing list of industry partnerships is also helping students prepare for the job market. Since SPARC3 was launched, a local wastewater treatment plant has brought on students in the general biology course to do research projects, and general chemistry students are doing internships with local companies in the chemical industry.

Tips for your college

For other community colleges looking to rebuild their STEM curriculum, Hagler’s advice is to be persistent. She notes that the SPARC3 team landed its NSF grant on the third try. They kept revising the grant proposal after being rejected by reviewers who thought the college’s goals were too grand to be accomplished in a short time. In the meantime, they went ahead with their curriculum revision plans.

“Just like we tell our students, don’t give up when you get one wrong answer or when your solution doesn’t work out the first time,” Hagler says. “Keep going.”

Sonya Stinson

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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