STEPping Up Undergraduate Research
The goal of the STEPMT program was to improve retention and graduation rates in the science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines at Middle Tennessee State University through the use of undergraduate research as a broad defining theme. Three strategies were implemented to realize these goals: (1) curriculum reform that emphasizes discovery-based learning and introduces elements of research, (2) creation of an undergraduate research community, and (3) partnerships with area high schools, universities, and industry. This three pronged approach provided a broad cross-section of STEM students beginning in their freshman year with an appreciation of the role of research in STEM disciplines, a peer support structure, and direct interaction with faculty and upperclassmen involved in research. The program impacted large numbers of students through the curricular reform efforts while offering focused attention to the diverse core of students in the undergraduate research community. The success of STEPMT was based on two premises: first, that incorporation of discovery-based learning can considerably reduce student dropout and failure rates, and second, that the one-on-one contact between a faculty mentor and an undergraduate research student has a significant impact on student retention. Both of these premises are supported by the literature and local experience.
In all, more than 211 students mentored by 67 faculty members complete 246 academic year projects. Those students received $215,500 to carry out individual research projects as either the lead researcher or the assistant researcher. Lead researchers received $1000 while assistant researchers received $500. Faculty mentoring lead researchers also received $500 for a total faculty stipend of $92,000. STEPMT academic year research projects were well patronized, averaging 20 projects per semester for the six year grant period. Over thirty-five percent of academic-year participants were minorities or female.
Summer Teams were another key activity for the STEPMT project. Each summer team consisted of one faculty member, two undergraduates, one high school teacher, and one high school student. Every summer team worked for eight weeks during the summer to complete a rigorous research project. STEPMT funded 27 different teams, with 54 MTSU undergraduates, 12 minority undergraduates from partner universities including Tennessee State University, University of Memphis, and Southern University of New Orleans, 25 high school teachers, and 26 high school students from Rutherford County High Schools. In addition, STEPMT has shared funding of 25 different summer internships with 14 different companies, providing research experiences for students in industry. All in all, STEPMT has funded $590,000 of summer research activities. Forty percent of summer participants were minorities or female.
STEPMT dramatically impacted the research environment at MTSU encouraging students to participate in research both individually and in groups, in both the academic year and summer and within the university and in a corporate setting. This NSF grant project has been a great success for both the College of Basic and Applied Science and MTSU and most of all for the STEM students who were involved in research. Of the over 350 participants who engaged in research as a result of STEPMT funding, over 98% of those who should have graduated, actually graduated. All presented their research on-campus and over 75 made presentations of their research off campus. Thirty students published with their mentors. During the grant period, the university began a university-wide undergraduate research poster session each year and the college began organizing an undergraduate research poster session at the state capitol each year. High school students exposed to research selected STEM majors; high school teachers exposed to research re-enrolled and completed their masters; undergraduate research students enrolled in top-flight graduate schools; and, some faculty who had never mentored undergraduate, enjoyed a new experience. This was a great project!