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University of Houston Intervention Program Focuses on Struggling Bio Students

After brainstorming new ways to engage students at risk for dropping or failing introductory biology courses, the University of Houston has instituted a new intervention program, funneling additional resources to faculty development and curricular improvements. Next year, the university will expand the program to other STEM disciplines.

biology student success program university of houstonThe funding for the new program was made possible by a grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board called the College Access Challenge. Aimed specifically at first year students in introductory and general biology courses -- which have the highest non-completion and failure rates of all the department’s courses  -- it adds workshops for faculty, peer-led recitation sessions, and changes to the curriculum. 

In practice, when students score below a C on their first exam, they’re required to attend a weekly group recitation session, led by junior or senior life science majors, that function almost like a lab: Students work in groups on hands-on activities that reinforce in-class concepts. Students also meet individually with faculty or staff members, go on field trips, and tour campus labs -- all designed to help spark engagement. All students in the main class can attend the extracurricular events, although their attendance is optional. In all, 16 faculty members and 16 undergrad majors make up the core support team.

"Since fall 2012, the program has served 2,653 students in the introductory course of science majors," said Donna Pattison, the program’s co-director and an instructional professor of biology and biochemistry in a statement. "The initiative resulted in a 14 percent department-wide increase in the number of students successfully completing the introductory course for biology majors."

A recent $1.5 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute will expand the program to entry-level courses in physics, chemistry and mathematics. The university is now developing a toolkit, with resources like demonstration videos and instructions, to share best practices from the program with other schools.

About the Author

Stephen Noonoo is an education technology journalist based in Los Angeles. He is on Twitter @stephenoonoo.

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