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
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
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,