Retaining science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students is a challenge for universities across the country, with anywhere from one-third to one-half transferring to non-STEM majors before degree completion. With COVID-19 cutting in-person course delivery short, researchers at UCI are studying how one university program may be helping first-year students – particularly underrepresented minorities at higher risk of leaving STEM-majors - stay connected and supported.

“We know the power of social networks in shaping who we are, how we think about the world and our identity in it,” says David Schaefer, sociology associate professor. “We’re interested in seeing how a targeted program to help at-risk students develop a strong academic network factors into their success in a new, completely remote environment.”

The novel Enhanced Academic Success Experience (EASE) initiative at UCI was launched in 2014. First-year biological science majors, identified for the program based on their math SAT scores, are grouped into 30-student cohorts who take the same courses and meet regularly with peer mentors and academic counselors. The resulting improvement in student GPAs and decline in first-year students leaving STEM majors have made it a model program, says Schaefer who was brought on to study how social networks may be factoring into the program’s success. 

“Learning communities have been promoted as a promising way to engage students both academically and social-psychologically, and a well-implemented program such as EASE can provide a model to support students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds," says collaborator Di Xu, associate professor in the School of Education and co-director of the Online Learning Research Center. "The analysis of social networks would further enable us to unpack specific mechanisms through which EASE may influence students."

Now, as Coronavirus has moved non-essential on-campus activities remote, Schaefer and collaborators have received a Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant from the National Science Foundation to shift their study to understand how the pandemic is affecting EASE students’ campus connections and academic progress. The interdisciplinary research team includes Schaefer, Xu and Brian Sato, molecular biology and biochemistry professor of teaching in the School of Biological Sciences.

“Underrepresented minority, first-generation, and low socioeconomic status students may be feeling more severe emotional and academic effects from social distancing and shelter-in-place measures,” says Schaefer. “Students who are part of the EASE program are still meeting once a week synchronously and are interconnected with their cohort, which may be key for keeping them engaged and connected.”

To understand the program’s impact, the researchers have launched a survey this quarter to collect their third wave of data for the year, with plans to capture more in-depth responses via interviews over summer. They’re looking to gain insight on possible disparities in academic and social integration and outcomes, and how the program may offset some of these disadvantages. They’ll be constructing detailed network maps to understand social structures that promote success and help determine who may be at higher risk of leaving a STEM major. 

“As we continue to operate in a remote environment, it’s essential to understand the impact this has on students,” says Schaefer. “If students in the EASE initiative continue to show improvement, elements of the program may be a model for other majors to implement to best support students in a regular and remote environment, particularly those in precarious situations.”

Funding for this study began in May and runs through April 2021.

-Heather Ashbach, UCI Social Sciences


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