New grant to help science, tech majors stay the course

Over the past 22 years, UC Berkeley’s Biology Scholars Program has successfully mentored some 2,900 undergraduates – mostly low-income, first-generation, women or minority students –  through tough courses in highly competitive majors.

Now, a new five-year, $1.5 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) will help the program share its successful strategies for supporting and retaining undergraduate biology majors throughout the Berkeley campus, in areas ranging from chemical biology to environmental science.

UC Berkeley student

Third-year student Jessica Reyes, a pre-med English major, shares her sentiments about the Biology Scholars Program.

“My goal is to help all students succeed in biology at Berkeley, with a special emphasis on those from underrepresented ethnic minority, first-generation and low-income backgrounds,” said John Matsui, co-founder and director of the program.

“Low-income and first-generation students experience the greatest disparities in performance because they often come from under-resourced high schools and communities,” he added. “My students have both the motivation and aptitude to do science. Berkeley Scholars Program-style advising, tutoring and instruction within a socially and academically supportive environment have helped students reveal their potential to succeed.”

The result? The program’s students, on average, enter Berkeley with lower SATs and GPAs than their majority peers, yet graduate with biology degrees with comparable final GPAs and in equivalent percentages, he said.

Sharing successful strategies

The grant, announced today (Thursday, May 29), will allow Matsui to distill his successful interventions into training materials that can be shared via workshops campus-wide across the many disciplines in the biological sciences.

The techniques developed over the years to decrease attrition rates for underrepresented students are “scalable and generalizable,” Matsui said, and should help his colleagues more effectively counsel, tutor and teach any undergraduate who may be tempted to switch majors, or drop out of college entirely, when faced with coursework and “science culture” at Berkeley that is more challenging and less hospitable than he or she  expected.

“Now, thanks to HHMI, we can go from helping hundreds to thousands of biology students each year,” he said.

“This award is a testament to the success of the Biology Scholars Program. Under John’s leadership, the program has promoted student success through mentoring, advising, study groups, internships, research opportunities and community-building,” said G. Steven Martin, dean of the biological sciences and professor of molecular and cell biology. “This award will allow us to identify the factors underlying BSP’s success, and to scale up the program in a way that will transform support for student success across campus.”

UC Berkeley is one of 37 academic research institutions nationwide to receive grants from HHMI totaling $60 million to improve the way science is taught and boost retention in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors.

“Our nation’s research universities are absolutely critical to sustaining our scientific excellence,” said HHMI president Robert Tjian, a UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology. “Simply put, we are challenging these universities to focus their attention on improving science education so that a greater number of talented students remain in science.”

Too many students dropping out of STEM majors

The institute noted in its announcement that about 60 percent of all undergraduates who begin college intending to major in STEM areas do not complete a baccalaureate degree in STEM. That figure is even higher – 80 percent – for freshmen from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

To help remedy this problem, HHMI asked 170 research institutions to apply for grants, focusing on improving introductory or “gateway” courses in chemistry, math and biology, where most of the attrition takes place for all students.

“For some students, the introductory courses are their only exposure to science. The widespread failure of institutions to deliver engaging and effective introductory science is a problem not only for future scientists, but also for all students, regardless of their eventual career path,” said Sean Carroll, vicepresident for science education at HHMI.

To date, 2,900 undergraduates have participated in the Biology Scholars Program, 80 percent of them low-income or first generation college students, 70 percent of them women and 60 percent of them underrepresented ethnic minorities. The program involves tutoring, mentoring, special courses, paid research and individualized advising to support students in introductory courses and beyond.

Programs modeled after the Biology Scholars Program have been established at 11 other colleges and universities in eight states, including three schools in California.

HHMI has supported the program in the past, as has the National Institutes of Health, the California Wellness Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.