While educators, workforce development officials and economic development executives trumpet the huge need for STEM education and getting students interested early and leading them along the path to success and considerable financial reward  there’s one point they sometimes forget:

“Math is really hard,” said Bob Carpenter, associate provost at UMBC.

Declining high school math scores due to the COVID-19 pandemic have caused even more issues in a discipline where “between 20-30% of students nationwide fail at their first crack at college calculus,” said Carpenter, “and know that high school calculus doesn’t necessarily relate to college calculus.

“And that,” he said, “raises the question about the curricula being aligned.”

Starting point

Carpenter stated that “about half” of UMBC’s students enroll in STEM majors, and the administration has found that “those who start programs with a lower-level math class have a reduced chance for success.”

That concern relates to financing, especially given UMBC’s annual in-state tuition and fees of about $12,000. “Those students who start at a lower level can run out of time and money to complete their degrees, especially if they have to repeat a class,” Carpenter said, adding, “Surprisingly, students who do often fail it a second time.”

So, what to do? Crunch some numbers and connect to a support system.

“Our analytics show that going to math tutoring really helps for students repeating a class,” said Carpenter, “to understand just how much, we often use propensity score matching, which allows us to statistically simulate the sort of random assignment used in a drug trial. That can increase success rates by 20 percentage points.”

The good news is that such approaches are easy. “We send messages to a couple of hundred students who repeat a class twice a semester, encouraging them to use tutoring. That has increased the number of students who use it by six percentage points, which is about 50%,” he said.

Grit works

UMBC also employs its Early Alert Program in some courses for struggling students, “which is about 80% accurate. We send the student an email over a participating instructors’ signature, but the instructor doesn’t see the prediction,” Carpenter said. “It simply directs them to tutoring and other help.”

Brad Phillips, executive director with the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, addressed what he feels had been a lack of velocity in addressing this issue.

“As far as educating students in STEM fields, until recently little had changed since Sputnik went into space,” said Phillips, “but math is so much broader now in information and various other technologies, and now artificial intelligence, etc. It’s more often tailored to various fields.”

The failure rate in STEM deals “with many factors”, he said, “none of which have to do with the capacity to learn. Math is a prime example. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 60% of students needed some kind of remedial learning in math, English and/or reading.” 

Much of the issue, said Phillips, was that the community colleges were using a single instance placement exam called ACCUPLACER. “If you got a number of questions right with that exam, you’d advance. If not, you were placed into developmental education.

“But we came to realize that a high GPA, as well as determination and grit, are better indicators of student performance,” said Phillips. “On the day of an exam, a student may have had a tough commute, just experienced a stressful life event, been hungry,” etc.

Teacher training

At Anne Arundel Community College, Mathematics Partnership Program Director Robyn Toman said her department has been bridging this gap for 10 years with Anne Arundel County Public Schools.

In this case a high school course, Foundations of College Algebra, “is aligned with two entry-level algebra courses at AACC,” said Toman. “The students are dually-enrolled and I train the high school teachers to follow the same standards as the college.

“That,” she said, “has allowed us to reduce or eliminate the need for remedial college STEM classes because students in our FOCA program have a 97% success rate, which also reaches 72% for (non-dually enrolled) students.”

That success, Toman said, arises from the high school students “spending their senior year learning how to take notes, taking tests online with mastery requirements and gaining other tips about succeeding at the next level.

“In other words,” said Toman, “they learn how to learn.”

Which is the point. Bhuvana Chandran, acting dean for science, engineering and technology at Howard Community College, said students have various opportunities to obtain help, be it by interacting with groups and clubs or being mentored by faculty, peer leaders and completion specialists who track their progress.

“We also have internships and apprenticeships, so we connect students to potential employers so they earn credits as they work,” said Chandran.

At Howard, undergraduate students are also encouraged to participate in what she termed “meaningful mentored research experiences, such as working in teams to learn research methods that will help their transition to a four-year school.”

Such as UMBC, perhaps. And that’s the key, especially concerning an issue that lies at the other end of this spectrum: delays in entering the workforce, especially considering the high entry-level salaries that are on the table for STEM graduates. That comes after the cost of paying for the same courses more than once.

“So early success in these courses is key,” Carpenter said. “That’s why an empathetic stance is a critical part of our best practices,” he said. “It’s like screening for public health. We’d like to catch problems early before they snowball.”