AU Awarded $54,112 NSF Grant
Date: June 26, 2007
Andrews University has just been awarded a second National Science Foundation (NSF) grant totaling $54,112 to study the factors that contribute to the unusual success of the Biology Department’s undergraduate students.
Students in the department were doing unexpectedly well with freshmen graduation rates of more than 70 percent, rankings in the 90th percentile on Major Field Tests, and medical school acceptance rates of around 85% - more than twice the national average.
A closer look at demographics makes these statistics even more interesting. Andrews University is known for its breadth of diversity, being noted as both the 14th most diverse National University and having the sixth highest percentage of international students by US News & World Report. This population is reflected in the Biology Department’s make-up, with between 30-40 percent of its students from underrepresented minority groups. National figures for minority students in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) are below ten percent.
Not only are students from diverse backgrounds finding success in Andrews University’s biology program in record numbers, so are students who may never have had the chance to even study biology at other schools due to low test scores and GPAs. Knowing that students in his department were doing better than they "should," John Stout, professor of biology and dean of Scholarly Research, did his own unofficial survey of ACT/SAT scores of entering freshmen in a dozen other church-affiliated colleges and universities. His results were quite amazing. Comparing the ACT/SAT scores of graduating biology majors with the scores of entering freshmen in any field in the other schools, Stout found that his students’ scores were below the average of any entering freshman in any discipline. "We had a substantially larger number of students below the average test score," Stout stated.
In 2003, Stout and Gordon Atkins, professor of biology, applied for a $490,600 NSF STEP Grant to figure out what was causing the students’ unexpected success. NSF funded this proposal, which was used to start a new behavioral neuroscience (BNS) program, an interdisciplinary program that combines behavioral science, biology and mathematics. The idea was to create a program that would be attractive to students who might not normally choose a STEM-related field of study, and in this program, use the same five-step approach used in biology, which includes lots of personal mentoring and a strong emphasis on participation in research opportunities. They then would be able to study the results and figure out which elements were causing the "educational transformation."
The study, however, took a turn during a meeting with NSF officers and other STEP grant recipients a little more than a year ago. NSF officials told David Mbungu, associate professor of biology and the project’s evaluation coordinator, that they needed to take a different approach to assessing the department’s unusual success, first learning what has been successful with the biology program before analyzing the new BNS program.
"NSF said we were doing mechanical things, but that we needed to know what people who have gone through the program think is working," Stout explained. With the guidance of Elaine Seymour, an expert in science education assessment, and the School of Education’s Larry Burton, professor of teacher education, a whole new assessment plan was developed that would evaluate biology graduates as well as current students. However, this new assessment plan would require additional funding. The NSF encouraged them to apply for a second grant, which has just been awarded and went into effect on June 15. Burton will serve as the principal investigator on this portion of the project.
Once the factors of the program’s success have been determined, NSF plans to share the biology program’s model with other universities around the country. "NSF considers our current biology program as one of the best models of transformational science education in the country," Stout said.
But it doesn’t take years of careful assessment to note a few obvious differences about Andrews University's approach, which focuses on taking a high interest in the individual student’s lives-personally, academically and spiritually. It’s a responsibility that the professors take personally.
"On the part of biology and behavioral neuroscience professors, there’s a shared expectation that if one of our students has to drop our class or drop out as a major, we consider that to be our failure," said Stout. "That we, [as teachers], have not been successful. That is perhaps the most distinctive feature [of the program]."
This mindset alone sets Andrews University apart from most other science programs in the country. "The most commonly held belief is that [biology] is hard and that you have to be smart," Stout continues. "One of the most important things you learn is that you’re not cutting it. Science faculty think that one of their roles is to weed out, where ours is to help students study and find success. Of anything we say to others, that brings the greatest amazement."
The evaluation process is already underway, and the project has a final completion goal of 2009.