NH News
5:00 am
Thu May 8, 2014

State Puts Its Weight Behind STEM: Now It Needs Students

Kristen Porter-Utley teaches biology to first year students at Keene State College.
Credit Emily Corwin

  By the mid-April at Keene State College, 13 students remained in professor Kristen Porter-Utley’s freshman biology lecture. Two had dropped out.  Keene State's Dean of Sciences and Social Sciences, Gordon Leversee,  says this is not unusual in science classes around the country.  Here, science students are 2 to 3 times more likely to get a D, an F, to withdraw, or receive an incomplete than students in other classes. 

This year, New Hampshire’s public colleges are gearing up to double the number of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) graduates by 2025.  Porter-Utley says she worries lecture-style classes are simply not engaging enough. So – she, and science educators like her around the state are making changes.

Biology major Emily Neverett says her organic chemistry class was so hard, she almost left biology for another major.  Neverett also says science just takes more time than other courses.  “It’s definitely more labor-intensive,” she says.    

Porter-Utley says science has “a bad reputation” that leads some students opt for other majors.  But out in the “real world,” businesses clamor for graduates with backgrounds in STEM.  A report from the state shows STEM jobs growing 7 percent faster than jobs generally.  The Governor is heading up a new STEM taskforce in order to boost NH’s GDP, and public colleges see STEM as a way to stay relevant.

VIDEO: How STEM became the "buzzword of the decade"

Next year, says Kristen Porter-Utley, first year biology students won’t be taking a biology lecture.  Instead, they will spend a whole semester working on a single hands-on project.  “When you own a project,” says Porter-Utley, “getting that content, and understanding that theory when it’s applied to something that’s yours, it’s so much easier.”

Porter-Utley says back when she was in school, underclassmen didn’t do their own research, and classes were designed to eliminate students, not encourage them. “It was sink or swim,” she says. In this economy, the thinking goes-- schools can’t afford to lose students bored by lectures or intimidated by the workload.

About five years ago, UNH’s physics department began offering its first year physics class both as a traditional 170-student lecture/lab combination and as a smaller, experiential “studio” class. There, says physics professor Dawn Meredith, scientific theory is taught through interactive experiments.  “So the students see it as a cohesive whole,” she says.

Meredith says they’ve blind-tested students in both the lecture and the experiential classes to see if one set learns better, testing both at the beginning and the end of the semester. 

“And we compared the grades on those, and the studio kids did significantly better,” Meredith says. Twenty percent better. Now, similar pedagogical experiments are being done across the physical and life sciences departments at UNH – and across the state.

But one aspect of studying science isn’t going to change. The hours.

For that, Porter-Utley and Dean of Sciences, Gordon Leversee have another solution. Leversee explains the “living and learning communities” he and Porter Utley are designing. “So that students in residence halls are sharing hallways with other STEM students, and that builds a sense of community, and promotes the culture required to be successful in STEM.”

That’s something Neverett says she would sign up for in a hot second.  Choosing lab work over ultimate Frisbee would probably be easier, if her suitemates were doing the same thing.

Professor Porter Utley is excited about changes in her department. But she doesn’t want more students to mean lower expectations. “If we are admitting a larger body of students, we gotta keep the rigor here,” she says, pointing above her hand, “and we gotta put the support system down here,” she points down, “and pull these students up.”

Schools’ efforts may be making a difference. Over the last five years, the proportion of students graduating with STEM degrees at the state’s University system has increased by three percent. With a host of new programs coming on line in the next few years, administrators are hoping that number will begin growing even faster.