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January 25, 2012

Despite being in just its second year, Bridgewater State University's STREAMS project has already improved the grades of many first-year students thanks to its initiatives inside and outside the classroom.

STREAMS, which stands for Student Retention Enhancement across Mathematics and Science, aims to help more students graduate with science or mathematics degrees. In May 2010, the National Science Foundation awarded the university a grant of nearly $1 million over five years to fund the project.

The improvements came last semester among 450 freshmen enrolled in 16 introductory science and math courses where the project's Structured Learning Assistance (SLA) programs had been implemented.

The SLA programs involve juniors and seniors who serve as peer learning assistants (PALs) and run two-hour weekly sessions where they work with freshmen in small groups on case studies relevant to everyday situations. Faculty members supervise and oversee the content of the one-credit courses.

"The SLAs have components of small group work and inquiry-based learning. Those types of activities help students learn deeply and keep them engaged in the subject material," said Dr. Thomas Kling, associate professor of physics, who oversees the program.

Additionally, the first-year students in the SLA courses can ask their PALs for advice regarding anything from course work to choosing classes for the next semester. "Having that role model helps," Dr. Kling said.

The results speak for themselves. The number of low grades earned by freshmen in these introductory classes, defined as D, F or withdrawal, dropped 13 percent, while high grades, A and B, rose 13 percent.

These numbers show that STREAMS is helping students get off on the right foot, Dr. Kling said. "Our hope is by having freshmen do really well in these introduction classes, they'll do better in the later courses and stay on the science path throughout their college careers," he said.

This past year saw the implementation of two new STREAMS initiatives outside the classroom, including a summer mentoring program for first-year students with 33 participants, and a residential learning community where 40 math and science majors share a floor in BSU's Woodward Hall.

The learning community mixes freshmen with upperclassmen science and mathematics majors who provide academic advice and coordinate science-based activities for the whole floor, such as their Magic of Science event, where students constructed simple, homemade science experiments.

"Instead of the usual residence activities, these students get to participate in things that are more science oriented," Dr. Kling said. "All these activities help students improve in their course work."

There's also the lab-based Summer Bridge Program in June, where freshmen take two courses led by faculty in the science and mathematics department. For part of the class time, they work in a lab conducting introductory research projects in small groups alongside student mentors, who are themselves working on research projects.

Dr. Kling said STREAMS has not only helped students, but has also helped promote better teaching practices. "We didn't just add the SLA programs on top of the classes," he said, "we integrated them into the courses, so the professors had to rethink their curriculum, how they were teaching and how they work with students. It was helpful."

BSU also received course development grants from STREAMS and hosted a number of professional development programs for faculty.

As for the future of the student-retention project, Dr. Kling said organizers plan to continue supporting new students through additional introductory courses, collaborating with regional community colleges, and initiating more professional development programs. "Then, we're looking to branch out to the upper-level classes," Dr. Kling said. (Story and file photo by Rob Matheson, '07, Office of University Development)

(From left) BSU student-mentor Melissa Brulotte, of Weymouth, with underclassmen Brittany Belanger of Berkley and Nicolette Giordano of Huntington Station, NY.

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