Caption: Figure 1. Student Isabella Donadio Pizzolato, Summer 2021 Chemistry Cohort (Credit: Carol McDonald, PBSC Photographer)
Post-Pandemic STEM Student Challenges Spark Innovation
Like most academic institutions across the globe in Spring 2021, Palm Beach State College (PBSC), a large 2-year community college and designated Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) in South Florida, faced multiple challenges returning to campus after a year of primarily remote teaching and learning since the COVID-19 pandemic. One major challenge was helping STEM students, especially those from underserved demographics, acclimate to in-person chemistry and biology lab classes having had little to no prior experience during high school. In response, the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) STEM Articulation and Transfer Collaborative (SATC) grant team at PBSC pioneered a dynamic science learning program that sought to build academic confidence, competence, and community into students’ experience. For any institutional leaders and administrators looking for an adaptable high-impact extracurricular in-person science learning program to better prepare and support your STEM populations, please read on.
SATC Grant Mission
The SATC grant project was funded by NSF’s IUSE Program in late 2019 to research innovative and effective culturally based interventions to better support Hispanic STEM students’ success at PBSC and eventual transfer to a 4-year community partner institution — Florida Atlantic University (FAU). The SATC grant has been providing early STEM research experiences based on the Co-curricular Undergraduate Research (CURES) model. The CURES model advocates that early opportunities for research in the classroom can spark interest in STEM careers and increase persistence, and campus engagement among 2-year students.1-4 Additional studies also demonstrated that hands-on research by students early in their college experience is key to career selection and academic retention of STEM majors.5,6
The initial SATC grant proposal sought to tack on a CURES element to existing Chemistry and Biology courses at PBSC. However, to address the unique and unprecedented challenges brought on by COVID for both students and the institution, the co-curricular model was adapted to an extracurricular model. This adaption allowed the grant team to sidestep the lengthy institutional curriculum review process to quickly serve students during the greatest time of need, at no cost, and with next to no pre-requisite requirements. The grant team structured the extracurricular model as a voluntary non-credit “Lab Research Training Program.” The extracurricular model also allowed for easy expansion into multiple disciplines, campus locations, and varied student demographics. To keep in mind the underserved populations the grant was designed to support and that experienced heavy impacts due to COVID, the Lab Program initially targeted primarily Hispanic STEM students. Due to the overwhelming student need post-COVID, however, the program was opened to all demographics on a first come first served basis. To date the program has still seen a 50% enrollment rate of Hispanic students.
The Nuts and Bolts of a Lab Research Training Program
After the first research training in Spring 2021, the program quickly grew into three disciplines, biology, biotechnology, and chemistry across three PBSC campuses. The lab trainings run 6 to 8 weeks in normal lab classrooms, and last 3 to 4 hours with short breaks as needed. Normal science laboratories are utilized for the trainings making replication easy on any campus, and instructors are recruited from lab department staff who often have teaching experience or serve as adjunct faculty. Instructors receive one-time $1,500 stipends through the SATC grant budget for each term they participate. Each discipline cohort has a maximum of two instructors leading up to 24 student participants.
For Administrators: If you choose to work with staff, we highly recommend that you work with the relevant supervisors and Human Resources to arrange a proper work schedule and payment strategy to avoid the issue of “double dipping” – taking pay from two sources for roughly the same work commitment.
Through these programs students gain knowledge of lab safety procedures, scientific principles, and math concepts directly applicable to their credit courses and STEM careers. Core content consists of undergraduate research projects, firsthand lab training exercises, and weekly guest speakers.a Students learn the basics of research methodology, recording data, and how to operate basic lab equipment such as UV/VIS spectrophotometers, analytical balances, and pH meters. Fundamentals of scientific inquiry and hypothesis testing are also taught and practiced through individual or group term projects. These projects are designed to empower students by letting them apply the concepts and skills they learn throughout the program to conduct their own self-paced research experiment. With instructor guidance, one of our students transformed her assignment into a digital video format (vlog) chronicling her experiences of creating her own paint mixture – see Additional Resources for links to this and a sample PowerPoint presentation from another student who conducted a caffeine extraction experiment.
Program facilitators treat the overall content more like interactive workshops than class lectures, encouraging students to be hands-on wherever possible so students can become comfortable in the lab environment and feel free to make mistakes. Our programs apply the stages of Bloom’s taxonomy7 of learning to encourage retention; thus, most activities have a practical application and are fun – see Additional Resources for examples!
For Administrators: We highly recommend you work with the relevant discipline faculty to seek guidance in creating a grounded and impactful curriculum that aligns with your desired learning outcomes.
We are seeking a balanced approach between fundamental lab skills in the discipline, basic scientific research experience, and community engagement.
There are no student financial incentives such as stipends or grants attached to enrollment, and there are no letter grades or academic credits awarded. Instead, students receive knowledge, experience, community connections, and a certificate of completion. To help celebrate students’ active participation and investment into the program we host a luncheon on the last day of each training term for the participants, their families, the instructors, and campus leadership. The luncheon is designed to legitimize students’ growth through the program and give them a platform to celebrate their learning outcomes and achievements with the community as they present their individual or group presentations.
For Administrators: We have noticed increased participation and attendance when lunch is provided during each week, however, you will need significant sponsorship to support the increased food budget. If funding is available, we highly recommend incorporating snacks and full lunches to best support student engagement.
Guest Speakers Connect Students to the Research Community and Their Future
Guest speakers are invited each week from PBSC wrap-around services, and the Florida research community, including local university students, research scientists, and graduate students. The goal for incorporating guest speakers each week is to help students build a strong professional and academic support network that can help them find lasting post-training success and community support. These connections serve as valuable culturally responsive interventions for our traditionally underserved demographics who often lack community capital. Connections to the broader community have had a powerful impact on our students, leading to real-world success.8
For Administrators: We highly recommend you work with your relevant faculty members and Career Services department to source guest speakers. We also recommend you brief guest speakers on program curriculum/learning outcomes so they can align their presentations accordingly.
A complete picture of how the lab research training programs have impacted students academically, professionally, and personally will take time to process. There are early indications, however, that the program is making a positive difference in the lives of student participants identified through both academic achievement and through qualitative survey feedback. Since the inaugural cohort in Spring 2021, the lab trainings have seen 79 out of 96 students successfully complete the program, of which 44 self-identified as Hispanic. To date, 27 of the 79 students have graduated with their 2-year associate degree with an average GPA of 3.46, while the remaining 52 students are still actively enrolled in their programs with an average GPA of 3.0. Qualitative student feedback from surveys and interviews has been overwhelmingly positive – see an example of our qualitative end of program survey in Additional Resources.
Some Student Survey Highlights
- “It made networking seem so easy and not stressed and it opened doors to things I didn’t even know existed. My education experience is broader now after this journey and I would definitely do it again.”
- “Coming back to in-person meetings after the pandemic was fun! I felt more than safe throughout the whole program, and coming to the meetings with the same students every week made me feel supported.”
- “I really enjoyed my time here. I made incredible friendships thanks to this program and the knowledge given is something that I will never forget.”
- “Because English is my second language, being taught and mentored by a Hispanic Science Instructor, made me feel less worried over if I was going to be understood or not because of my accent.”
Get More Students into The Lab!
Whether you can afford to create a 6-week research training program, or a simple pH balance workshop, get your students into the laboratory as much as possible to see science in action. Virtual lecture and lab courses deliver valuable fundamental concepts, but nothing can substitute for hands-on experience. Measuring dry and liquid chemicals, recording results in a lab notebook, titrating reactions for color changes, and working with equipment provide tactile learning and neuromuscular memory needed for many careers in science and healthcare. Most importantly, the research supports that the more students are engaged in the lab the more likely they are to persist in the classroom, keep them engaged at the college, and find their spark in STEM.1-4
- SATC Program Website
- Student Survey Example – SATC Lab Research Training Qualitative Survey Example
- Biotechnology Student Testimonial – Bruna Sharkey SATC Lab Research Training Student Testimonial
- Student Research Presentations
- Science Activity Examples
- Biotechnology Agenda Sample – SATC Biotech Lab Research Training Agenda
- National Science Foundation’s IUSE Program – https://new.nsf.gov/funding/opportunities/improving-undergraduate-stem-education-directorate.
- PBSC Administration – Associate Dean Dana Hamadeh, Dean Dr. Roy Vargas, Provost Van Williams, Provost and Dean Barbara Cipriano, Provost and VPAA Dr. Dr. Tunjarnika L Coleman-Ferrell, and Former Associate Dean Carlos Ramos, Former Grant Coordinator Vincent Price, and Former Dean Sheila E. Scott-Lubin.
- PBSC Science Department Specialist instructors Kat Huang, Meaghan Janiak, Edison Mejia, Samia Huda, Geetha Kupparaj, and Marilyn Glemaud.
- Partner institutions – UF Scripps Biomedical Research (https://scripps.ufl.edu/), the Max Planck Institute for Neuroscience (https://mpfi.org/), and FAU’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (OURI – https://www.fau.edu/ouri/).