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The STEM Leaders Program is a collaborative initiative between the College of Science, Engineering and Agricultural Sciences to increase the number of underrepresented groups to be able to have an experiential learning experience their first year at Oregon State University.
Higher education research has consistently shown that peer-to-peer interactions and student-faculty interactions are extremely influential in promoting college student persistence, achievement, and learning. However, the large-enrollment introductory STEM courses that dominate engineering and science lower-division curricula inhibit social integration and tend to distance students from the excitement and challenges of scientific research and eventual STEM careers.
Programs that promote social integration and connections among peers and between students and faculty should be prominent features of STEM retention efforts. The OSU STEM Leaders Program fosters early, cohort-based STEM integration and an expanded, enduring culture of undergraduate research at OSU with particular emphasis on facilitating early access to research under peer and faculty mentorship. It is designed for students from populations with historically high rates of attrition and underrepresentation.
The literature cites many cases where undergraduate research experiences are highly influential on STEM students’ academic success, retention, career clarification, and pursuit of graduate studies. Additionally, the connections students forge with faculty members as a result of engaging in undergraduate research help provide students professional access and build enthusiasm for the subject matter. These results are echoed largely for underrepresented students in STEM fields.
Research shows peer mentorship to be particularly advantageous to underrepresented students by creating an intentional community within a predominantly white institution, often resulting in persistence. Those who serve as peer mentors also experience significant benefits such as increased critical thinking skills, refined teaching skills, and leadership experience. In addition, first-year experience seminars are nationally recognized as high-impact, best practices for promoting new student integration, academic success and retention.
In 2014, Oregon State University (OSU) was funded by the National Science Foundation IUSE STEM Leaders Program grant to increase and retain the number of underrepresented groups in the sciences. The grant recognizes OSU's strong and shared commitment to academic excellence and diversity and provides new programming and services that will benefit incoming freshmen and transfer students on campus. To strengthen the academic success and retention of undergraduates, the STEM Leaders Program delivers three main areas of activity: supporting first-year experiential learning in a paid undergraduate research opportunity, professional development through a one-credit research-ready course and providing mentoring from previous STEM Leader students to build community their first year at OSU.
The OSU STEM Leaders program is funded by NSF Award #1432810 and generous contributions from the OSU Research Office and the Colleges of Science, Agricultural Sciences, and Engineering.