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This tagline comes from the PBS website, The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers. The website would be a wonderful resource for STEM undergraduates who don’t have a good grasp of what it means to be a scientist. It also debunks the discouraging stereotype of scientists as nerdy, social misfits, who will never have interesting lives. The website features video profiles of men and women in the sciences, covering both their vocations and avocations and the synergistic relationship between the two. Secret Life also has a blog with posts that put scientific work in a social context to give it meaning and relevancy for students.

I’ll be adding The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers to my career resources for students in Biology and Environmental Sciences. Can anyone else recommend resources that will give undergraduates a realistic perspective on science careers and encourage them to stay in STEM majors? Feel free to share your valuable knowledge here.

 Image attribution: Lab 15 – Lab Coats, by Pi from Leiden, Holland, 11/2/1007.  

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For those attending the American Library Association Conference this year, save Monday, June 30, 8:30 – 10 am to attend a panel session directly related to this blog. “Sticking with STEM: How the Academic Library Can Help to Retain Successful Students” is being sponsored by the Association of College and Research LibrariesScience and Technology Section and Health Sciences Interest Group (HSIG).  The panel members are:

Joanna Jezierska, Director of University of Nevada – Las Vegas’ Multicultural Programs for Engineering, Sciences and Allied Health Sciences/Nursing

Jan Fransen, Engineering Librarian at the University of Minnesota. Co-author of “Library Use and Undergraduate Student Outcomes: New Evidence for Students’ Retention and Academic Success.” portal: Libraries and the Academy, 13, 2, 147–164.

Carissa Tomlinson, First Year Experience (FYE) Librarian at Towson University. Founder of the HSIG and national presenter on FYE initiatives.

Continental breakfast will be provided. Grab a coffee and Danish, and join the STEM retention dialogue!

Image attribution: Las Vegas Poster USA Welcome Casino, taken by lacarabeis, 3/7/2010, license – Public Domain CC0.

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In the 1997 landmark study, Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences by Seymour and Hewitt, 75% of students who switched to non-STEM majors identified “inadequate advising or help with academic problems” as a concern (p.33). Interestingly, 52% of undergraduates who stayed in STEM majors had the same concern. Individual interviews and focus groups provided the detail that undergraduates are confused and frustrated by having to visit different offices and staff to get advising, career counseling and tutorial services (p.134). The STEM students would prefer one-point access to these support services.

At the University of North Texas (UNT), which has over 36,000 students, even if academic advisors were knowledgeable about careers in STEM, they do not have the time to explore this topic with the thousands of students they see each year. The Career Center has the same challenge of overwhelming numbers; there is one career development specialist for the College of Arts and Sciences and one other for the College of Engineering. Obviously these folks could use a hand from librarians in getting STEM career information out to students.

Here are some ideas for collaborating with academic and career advising staff to help STEM undergraduates who need to know more about career options: 1) work together to gather content for subject guides on library websites that will direct students to career options, 2) jointly design online brochures of STEM career resources and make them available on advising, career counseling, and library webpages, and 3) jointly design print brochures with career resources and liaison librarian contact information to be distributed in academic advising and career counseling offices.

Please share any related ideas you have or that have been already implemented at your college or university!

Image: Careers and Guidance, attributed to Andrew Bowden, 2012. No changes were made to the image.

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In considering how academic librarians might increase retention among science undergraduates, it is important to remember the impact of community colleges on retention. Lloyd and Eckhardt reported in Science Educator that more than half of students receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees in science in 2004 had attended community college at some point (p.33). Knowing the trends in science major retention, it’s reasonable to assume many more students from community colleges start out as science majors at 4-year institutions, and then end up switching to different disciplines. Preparing community college students to be accepted for transfer and succeed in science majors could be key to getting more undergraduates into the STEM pipeline.

 Lloyd and Eckhardt’s 2010 article leads me to suggest that the library programs most successful in improving retention of STEM majors in the future will be the result of collaboration between community college and 4-year college librarians.

 Photo attribution: “Community college chemistry students” from Integrated Laboratory Network’s Flickr photostream.  This image has not been changed in any way. See the Creative Commons License for further details.  

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The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published a lengthy article entitled, “The STEM Crisis: Reality or Myth?” Various experts in science policy and labor trends contributed their views, and in the end, I was left wondering whether I should even continue this blog.

 But then I started reading a major study of STEM majors published in 1997, Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences, by Seymour and Hewitt. It became clear to the researchers after interviewing 460 STEM undergraduates that switching majors is merely the tip of “the problem iceberg” (pp. 46-47). Both students who switched to non-science majors and those who stuck with STEM disciplines identified many of the same dissatisfactions with STEM disciplines, two of the top ones being, inadequate help with academic problems and advising, and discovering that their reasons for choosing a STEM major were inappropriate. STEM crisis, or no, there is still a need for academic librarians to investigate how we can contribute to improving the educational experience of STEM undergraduates. Providing help with “academic problems” and accurate career information to support realistic selection of majors are areas where we can definitely make an impact.  

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I owe my understanding of chemistry to dedicated teaching assistants (TAs), who patiently worked with me when I was confused. Sometimes they seemed more accessible than faculty, and that may be a common perception among undergraduates. A 2012 study by Kendall and Schussler found that undergraduates taking biology courses perceived TAs as being “approachable, understanding, and relatable,” while they perceived professors as “distant, strict, and formal” (p. 196).

The teaching assistant’s connection with students is an avenue librarians can use to support retention in STEM disciplines. In the 2007 article, “The Impact of Teaching Assistants on Student Retention in the Sciences,” O’Neal et al. reported that undergraduates didn’t identify TAs as having an impact on whether they planned to stay in a science major or not. However, TAs can influence at least two factors the students did identify – lab climate and career information.

Librarians can help prepare TAs to offer a supportive lab climate and career information through 1) training about the library’s resources and services, 2) providing library instruction in TAs’ sections, and 3) creating online guides about lab assignments and career options for TAs to share with students. Many of us have opportunities to train and collaborate with TAs already, but if you don’t, it’s a good option to explore.

Photo attributed to: George Joch, courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.

Creative Commons License The photo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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Introductory biology courses are full of bright, enthusiastic students who want to be doctors someday. But when they get their first exams back with scores below 80, their dreams of medical school start to fade. The New York Times article, “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard),” reports that 40% of engineering and science majors switch to different disciplines or leave college altogether, and the rate of attrition from STEM shoots up to 20% when pre-med students are included (Drew, Nov. 4, 2011). We are experiencing the pre-med blues first hand at the University of North Texas, where many beginning biology majors leave the department when it becomes clear they won’t have the grades to get accepted to medical school. A small step we have taken to break the pattern is to get career information to students in the first course of the biology major. The goal is to introduce students to the numerous careers they can enter with a bachelor or master degree in biology, so they realize they have options beyond a medical career. The information is being provided through the Careers in Biological Sciences section in the LibGuide for Biology for Science Majors I. This semester I introduced the class page and career information to students at a library orientation. In the future, I would like to investigate integrating the career information into the course curriculum, and be able to assess if it has an impact on students’ knowledge of options in STEM careers. Is anyone else trying a similar tactic to retain STEM students? Chime in and share your experience. Photo: “Failed Exam,” attributed to Alex Proimos, Sept. 14, 2009.

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It’s unlikely that we can directly, and certainly not singlehandedly, impact retention in the STEM disciplines. Emmons and Wilkinson are right on the money in the conclusions of their 2011 study, “The Academic Library Impact on Student Persistence.”  They find a positive correlation between the ratio of professional library staff to students and retention when analyzing data from 99 ARL libraries. Rather than interpreting this as the direct impact of Superlibrarians, they thoughtfully propose viewing academic libraries as “part of a complex social system that includes the university in the environment of the surrounding community (p. 146).” Within that system, libraries likely engage students “as a specialized type of learning assistance center.” Although Emmons and Wilkinson analyzed retention of undergraduates and graduates in all disciplines, their conclusions provide a useful perspective on possible library contributions to the retention of STEM undergraduates.
Photo attributed to: Nancy Dowd. Super Librarian Launch 2007, Jan. 10, 2007.

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More specifically, how can U.S. academic libraries help retain undergraduates in the science majors? That’s the topic I’ll be exploring in this blog, and I hope you’ll join me in the undertaking. It’s widely known in U.S. higher education there are not enough science majors “in the pipeline” to meet the needs of an increasingly technological society and competitive global economy. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology called for one million additional STEM college graduates over the next decade in their 2012 report. How can librarians contribute to this initiative? Whatever your perspective is on this topic – including the view that academic librarians shouldn’t be in the retention business at all – join me on this exploration. I suspect we’ll discover that science librarians already contribute much to student persistence. Together we can brainstorm even more ways to help undergraduates progress through the STEM pipeline.