Ferris State University receives $1.2 million grant to increase STEM retention rates

Ferris State University (FSU) recently received a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to fund a new initiative called Project S3OAR (pronounced SOAR three), short for Sustainable, Scalable Scholarships, Opportunities, Achievements, and Results, in collaboration with Northern Kentucky University (NKU). The initiative will focus on low-income STEM major students, funding up to $10,000 toward their degree. Beginning in the fall of 2019, 36 students will be enrolled in the program, continuing for the next five years.

Although there are many initiatives across the country that encourage students to pursue STEM disciplines — some beginning as early as middle school — many educational institutions struggle to retain these majors at the higher level.

Across the country, retention rate percentages for STEM majors range from high 60s to the low 70s, and at Ferris State University, that statistic sits at 73 percent. One of the objectives of Project S3OAR is to increase this rate to 90 percent. Ferris State University’s Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Dr. Kristi Haik says the main reasons these retention rates are low is due to a combination of STEM disciplines being generally challenging to succeed in and a lack of academic preparedness from students.

Dr. Haik reflected on her journey as STEM major, and connected her own experiences to those of the students with whom she works.

“When they get here and run into some really intense challenges, it’s hard and they might not know where to get the help,” she says. “I had great grades in high school and I thought I knew how to study, and then had a rude awakening. I have worked with students to do this program for years, and they all say exactly what I said ... ‘I thought I knew what I was doing, and then I got to college.’”

Prior to FSU, Dr. Haik was working at NKU, where the program was originally established in 2009. A year ago, she proposed that the grant-funded program continue at NKU, and would use that as a model to implement at FSU.

One of the important lessons learned from the program at NKU is that students need a support system to succeed.

“They’re not going to always want to seek help, even though they might need it,” says Dr. Haik. “So working with them, meeting with them, having somebody who is their champion on campus… really serves as that support system.”

The program will also give students the opportunity to shadow employees in the STEM field early in their program, for four to eight hours long, to decide if they want to commit to that career path.

“A lot of times, we hear from students, it was in their internship or junior year when they got connected to somebody at a business, when they ‘got it’ –– that this is something they really want to do,” says Dr. Haik.

Project S3OAR’s other objectives include increasing the enrollment of low-income and underrepresented groups by 10 percent, thus bringing STEM retention and graduation rates for these populations in line with the rest of the university; documenting the program’s sustainability and scalability; and conducting research on the effectiveness of job shadowing in increasing the retention rate from the first year into the next.

In response to the program’s success at NKU, the target goals of the program being met in the next few years to come seem likely. Overall, the program will allow students to think about a wider range of career paths –– a more optimistic future that opens the doors for underrepresented students.

Photos courtesy of Ferris State University.