Mentoring Helps Move the Needle

Working together, students and faculty are finding, and removing, barriers to enrollment and retention in STEM programs

By Lisa B. Bosman

Prof. Kelli Chelberg (right) with student Deb McPherson.

The College of Menominee Nation (CMN) is an accredited, baccalaureate-level tribal college with a main campus on the Menominee Indian reservation and urban campus in metropolitan Green Bay, Wisconsin. Like many other educational institutions, CMN struggles with recruitment, retention, and persistence of students enrolled in its STEM programs.

Over the past several years, CMN has received federal funding awards from agencies including the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Environmental Protection Agency to support the college’s commitment to increasing diversity and student success in the STEM programs. With this funding, CMN has implemented evidence-based teaching practices, developed new associate and baccalaureate degrees in disciplines ranging from biology to pre-engineering, offered research opportunities for undergraduates, and created new internship programs.

If we build it, will they come?

Initial optimism was extremely high when these programs were introduced. Like Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams,” we assumed that “if we build it, they will come.” When participation numbers did not meet projections, a few lead faculty took a step back and assessed national statistics to see how CMN was comparing on a national level. Some of the results they found and takeaways gained include the following:

  • According to the NSF Science and Engineering Indicators report from 2018, after two years, 31 percent of all science and engineering majors switched out to social and behavioral sciences, choose a program of study not related to science or engineering, or were undecided.

Takeaway: STEM retention is a problem experienced across the country by all types of universities and all demographics.

  • According to the Pell Institute’s 2016 Historical Trend Report, only 11 percent of low-income, first-generation college students will have a college degree within six years of enrolling in school, compared to about 55 percent of more advantaged peers who are not low-income or first-generation students. Furthermore, first-generation students are four times more likely to drop out before graduating.

Takeaway: College retention and completion rates are a problem experienced across the country for low-income and first-generation college students, regardless of demographic.

  • According to the 2018 NSF Science and Engineering Indicators report, from 2000 through 2013, of those earning a bachelor’s degree, 1.2 percent of the degrees were earned by American Indians and Alaska Natives. However, of those earning a bachelor’s degree in science and engineering, only about 0.68 percent of the degrees were earned by American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Takeaway: Native students are particularly underrepresented in STEM programs, with lower enrollment and retention rates than most other ethnic groups.

College of Menominee Nation faculty felt strongly, however, that these sobering findings should not justify inaction. Instead, faculty and project leaders pledged to think beyond the numbers and overcome the multiple challenges faced by TCU students.

Instead of faculty telling students what they were thinking and what changes they should make, students were guided down a path of self-discovery and empowerment.

Mentoring for success

In Fall 2016, Prof. Kelli Chelberg and I rolled out a pilot mentoring program for CMN STEM students. The goal of the pilot was to get at the heart of why barriers exist and, just as important, learn how to overcome the barriers. The mentoring program was based on principles described in the book “How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching” (Ambrose et al. 2010). In summarizing the literature, Ambrose and her colleagues propose that motivation to learn is primarily a determinant of three key factors: (1) Self-Efficacy (“Can I do this task?”) (2) Seeing Value (“Why should I do this task?”), and (3) Supportive Environment (“Will the conditions and setting support this task?”).

Mentoring began by asking students to document the barriers they faced, especially obstacles related to self-efficacy, seeing value, and finding a supportive environment. Following the strategies of participatory action research and a community-based research practice called Photovoice, students were encouraged to take pictures that visually captured the barriers and challenges–as well as the motivations and successes–found in the everyday struggle to balance education, work, family, and life. Drawing on the information gleaned from this research process, students met one-on-one with a faculty member to discuss, reflect, and make a plan for moving forward.

Through these conversations, the project leaders discovered that many students were unsure if their chosen educational degree was a good fit for their skill set (lack of self-efficacy). Furthermore, many students had a fear of the unknown and uncertainty about how a degree might help them in the future (couldn’t see value). Lastly, many students had concerns dealing with unsupportive faculty, filling out paperwork, signing up for courses, working around a part-time job schedule, juggling family responsibilities, and basic navigational skills required for higher education (limited supportive environment).

In response, faculty mentors helped students use reflection and inquiry to understand and acknowledge the issues they faced, then apply experimentation in an effort to make positive changes to improve motivations for student success. Thus, instead of faculty telling students what they were thinking and what changes they should make, students were guided down a path of self-discovery and empowerment. Students were able to acknowledge the potential role self-efficacy, seeing value, and a supportive environment might play in hindering their learning process. Likewise, they were able to see issues holding them back in other areas of their life, including developing relationships and applying for a new job.

Some students don’t come to college with a long-term plan; instead, they come with a short-term mindset, seeing education as a “way out.”

Although each student’s experience was very situation specific, four general themes came to light.

First, all participants acknowledged that scheduling and prioritizing were important skills required to successfully navigate higher education. Furthermore, some students expressed difficulty with time management and the likelihood of distractions (e.g. work, transportation, hobbies) getting in the way of completing school-focused tasks. These findings justify that students could benefit from capacity building that focuses on time management, including the ability to schedule and prioritize tasks. In some cases, students were introduced to the benefits of Google Calendar (or a similar digital application) and/or using a hard copy calendar to organize assignment due dates.

Second, several participants acknowledged that routine and structure were important to successfully navigating higher education. The students expressed the desire for control, accountability, and clear instructions, both directly and indirectly. In some cases, students were encouraged to check in with faculty on a regular basis to ensure the syllabus and course plan were still on track.

Third, most participants acknowledged that family and community were key motivators in completing their degree. The students expressed a desire for recognition or shared sense of pride in celebrating family-related successes. In some cases, students were encouraged to celebrate key milestones with family and the community, and to involve family in schools events as much as possible.

Lastly, many participants acknowledged that avoidance of heading down a negative path was a key motivator for enrolling in the degree. The students expressed a desire to escape certain adverse lifestyles (such as debt, loneliness, alcoholism, and gaming). A bigger conversation that resulted was the notion that some students don’t come to college with a long-term plan; instead, they come with a short-term mindset, seeing education as a “way out.” In some cases, students were encouraged to talk with professors and working practitioners to better understand what to expect from an education and career perspective.

In conclusion, College of Menominee Nation faculty take pride in the everyday connections made with students and those little moments when they see their students being more motivated to learn and overcome fears, promoting growth both personally and professionally. The mentoring program helps make this happen, and has been going strong for four semesters, impacting about 40 CMN STEM students. Dr. Diana Morris, CMN Chief Academic Officer, has been in full support of the program since the start and hopes to soon open the mentoring program to all CMN students.

Lisa Bosman is a research associate with the College of Menominee Nation. She holds PhD in Industrial Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

For more on the CMN mentoring program contact Prof. Kelli Chelberg (kchelberg@menominee.edu).

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