Dallas County Community College District: Transforming Lives, Integrated Programming for STEM Students
Dallas County Community College District (DCCCD) is having tremendous success in promoting completion and transfer among talented science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students through the DCCCD STEM Institute. The Institute focuses on a crucial leakage point in the STEM pipeline—the freshman and sophomore years of college. Much of the movement out of STEM majors occurs in these pivotal first two years. Since its initiation in 2009, the STEM Institute has evolved to include comprehensive extracurricular support for students preparing to complete a bachelor’s degree or higher in a STEM field. Currently, over 100 students attending one of the seven DCCCD colleges participate each term, with much of the financial backing provided by the W.W. Caruth, Jr. Foundation at Communities Foundation of Texas.
Key components of the DCCCD STEM Institute include mentoring by full-time STEM faculty members, professional skill development activities, a full-day professional conference, and scholarship support. Selected through a competitive application process, participating students (called STEM Scholars) convene at the beginning of the term to meet their peers and faculty mentors (called STEM Fellows). With only six STEM Scholars assigned to each STEM Fellow, there is ample opportunity for each student to develop a strong relationship with a caring faculty member. One student recently wrote, “My mentor was not just there for my academic/career success but was a huge support for some hard times.”
The student cohort gathers each fall and spring for a professional skills seminar. This past year, the fall seminar was focused on the transfer process and included a dedicated transfer fair with representatives from many of the major Texas universities. The spring 2015 seminar, conducted by a professional business etiquette expert, took students through the key elements of professional dining, including how to balance the plate while shaking hands at a reception. Additional panels and lectures are offered throughout the year, including topics such as Women in STEM: Life/Work Balance, Entrepreneurship in STEM Fields, Preparing for Research Experiences and Internships, and The Power of Being Yourself. Students also took advantage of small group visits to local companies where they interacted directly with STEM professionals and learned about the variety of ways that a STEM education could be applied throughout a career. As one STEM Scholar shared, “I work in retail and would never see that level of professional presentation without being in the STEM Institute and on those trips.”
STEM Fellows also get the opportunity to engage in professional skill development, with fall and spring Academy days providing extra guidance related to effective mentoring and pedagogical knowledge. More than 80 percent of the STEM Fellows reported that they had an increased knowledge of the resources available to students after serving as a mentor.
The culminating event for the year is the DCCCD STEM Summit. This year’s keynote address was given by Nina Tandon, CEO of Epibone. Dr. Tandon gave a motivating talk about her own pathway in STEM. The next day, the STEM Scholars and Fellows convened for a full day of breakout speakers and panel discussions after launching the day with an informal Q&A session with Dr. Tandon.
The STEM Institute provides a transformative experience for a diverse group of community college students, motivating them to persist in STEM disciplines, develop their professional skills beyond the classroom, and prepare to be effective employees and leaders as they enter the STEM workforce in the near future. Since the early stages of the program, almost 90 percent of STEM Scholars have earned at least an associate’s degree in a STEM discipline, are still pursuing STEM degrees, and/or are working in a STEM field. For the 2014-2015 academic year, 88 percent of the STEM Scholars reported that their participation in the STEM Institute increased their belief in their ability to succeed in a STEM career. When asked to rank statements about the impact on the STEM Institute, the highest ranked statement was, “The STEM Institute accelerated my educational pathway toward my STEM career.”
The details of the STEM Institute programming are regularly adjusted based on feedback from Scholars and Fellows, as well as advice from internal and external advisory committees. Feedback tools include post-event surveys, end of term surveys, notes and observations from staff, and focus groups conducted by the STEM Institute evaluator.
The key to the effectiveness of the DCCCD STEM Institute is that it provides comprehensive, integrated support. The mentorship, scholarship support, professional skill development, peer networking, emphasis on academic excellence, and exposure to transfer and career opportunities collectively help students strengthen their knowledge and drive. The integrated package leads to statements like: “The STEM Institute helped me stay consistent and invested in my schooling this semester which was a very difficult one. Reputation and desire to be here was powerful this semester for me. I might otherwise have dropped out.”