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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872

URI launches 'learning communities' to increase enrollment & retention of students, especially women,
in science and engineering

KINGSTON, RI -- October 27, 2000 -- Walk into most college math, physical science and engineering classes anywhere in the country and you're bound to see plenty of computers and equations. But what you won't see is many women or other under-represented groups.

For example, the University of Rhode Island graduates fewer women in these disciplines. In 1997, women received 15 percent of the 33 physical science degrees and 16 percent of the 126 engineering degrees from URI. (As in other institutions across the country, URI had a higher percentage of women receiving bachelor's degrees in biological sciences (49 percent) and pharmacy (51 percent).

That is all changing this semester, thanks to an innovative program designed by women faculty members at URI. Funded by a three-year $200,000 National Science Foundation grant with $200,000 matched by URI, the overall goal of the initiative is to increase enrollment and retention of underrepresented students, particularly women, in science, math, engineering, and technology both in the nation and at URI.

The initiative has a three-pronged approach. The first prong is the formation of student learning communities in disciplines, or subdisciplines, that historically have attracted few women. Learning communities promote small-group learning and foster social interaction among students and have a proven track record in improving retention.

The second prong is a peer-mentoring program that assigns peer mentors to each class in the learning communities. Peer mentors serve as role models, assist with coursework and projects, and offer other support. Research has shown that students who are anxious about a course seek out mentors when they are available, thus reducing their anxiety and increasing their confidence and performance.

The third prong is a yearlong learning community for science and engineering faculty that introduces news ways of teaching and learning that will assist in the retention of underrepresented groups.

The main reason to increase the numbers of women and minorities is that many of the new career opportunities are linked with greater skills in science and technology. One way to narrow the wage gap, is to recruit and train women for high-tech, high paying jobs.

URI's project focuses on making these courses more attractive by pairing them with other courses (for example, writing, URI 101 freshman orientation, women's studies, etc.) and interesting students with more engaging pedagogy (for example, hands-on projects, small-group learning, etc.).

Dr. Donna Hughes of Kingston, Carlson Endowed Chair in Women's Studies Program and principal investigator of the project states: "The faculty involved in this project carefully designed the learning communities to give students support in getting through the rough spots, the times and places where students are most likely to drop out of that discipline or subdiscipline. The learning communities will enable students to engage in sometimes difficult material and show them the career opportunities in the fields of science, engineering and technology."

Specifically, the multi-disciplinary initiative includes four learning communities for students and one for faculty:

INTEREST IN INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY LEARNING COMMUNITY. This learning community is comprised of a three-course cluster of classes designed for up to 25 students, especially women, interested in computers. Currently, 15 students are taking Introduction to Women Studies focusing on women and technology, URI 101, also modified to focus on technology, and either a pre-calculus or an introductory computer science class. The goal is to empower and encourage students in the use of technology and recruit more into diverse areas of interest such as computer science, graphic design, website management, etc. Students will use computer-based material to complete assignments and develop collaborative study projects and learn about the historic contributions by women in scientific and technological skills. Hughes and Dr. Joan Peckham of Kingston, associate professor in URI's Computer Science and Statistics Department are the coordinators.

WRITING AND THE NATURAL SCIENCES: The initial learning community consists of 16 non-science students enrolled concurrently in four courses: "Women's Studies and the Natural Sciences," Writing 101, an introductory biology course and URI 101, an orientation seminar. The objective is to help students develop positive attitudes and increased confidence toward science and math by developing their writing and science skills and knowledge about women's contributions to these disciplines. Study groups, peer tutors, and collaborative projects are ongoing. URI professor and Kingston resident Dr. Karen Stein from the English Department is the coordinator.

QUANTITATIVE AND RESEARCH PSYCHOLOGY: Many undergraduate students, who avoid quantitative courses in psychology, believing them to be difficult, set limits on future areas of study and career choices. To address this problem, a learning community, mainly for second and third-year students, take a quantitative psychology course or research psychology course and an independent research/practicum. Peer mentors facilitate learning by helping groups of students work through the phases of literature review and hypothesis formation, data analysis, and research report write-up. A group of about 20 students not enrolled in the learning community will be used as a control group for preliminary and outcome measures. Professor of Psychology Lisa Harlow of Exeter is the coordinator.

FIRST YEAR ENGINEERING: A learning community of 15 women students took part in a 4-day overnight summer bridge program designed to introduce them to the field of engineering and to help them form bonds with each other in order to decrease the isolation often felt in traditionally male classes. In the fall, these students enrolled in the same section of a course. The two coordinators, URI engineering faculty members Drs. Faye Boudreaux-Bartels of West Kingston and Mercedes Rivero-Hudec of Narragansett, meet with the group several times during the first semester. A series of meetings and career-building workshops sponsored by the Society of Women Engineers will be held throughout this fall.

FACULTY FELLOWS LEARNING COMMUNITY: This program, co-led by Bette Erickson and Glenn Erickson of the Instructional Development Program in collaboration with Principal Investigators Lisa Harlow and Joan Peckham, will bring together 15 to 20 faculty members for a year-long, in-depth exploration of teaching and learning in science, math, engineering, and technology disciplines. Fellows will examine current research on teaching in those fields, explore a variety of methods and approaches for engaging and retaining students and test promising approaches in their own courses, and support each other's efforts to experiment. The Fellows will meet twice monthly throughout the academic year. They will also form small teams to experiment with approaches.

PEER MENTORING PROGRAM: Peer mentors are assigned to each class in the learning communities, adding another supportive dimension to the existing structure of learning communities. Currently seven mentors meet with students and also as a group for training, support and to share experiences and successes. Women's Studies staff member, Dr. Barbara Silver, is the coordinator. Two conferences to disseminate findings and stimulate new ideas are planned.

Dr. Betty Young of Exeter, associate professor of education at URI, will serve as an independent evaluator and assess the effectiveness of the initiative.

For Information: Donna Hughes, 401-874-5150, Jan Sawyer, 401-874-2116

 

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