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University of Missouri

Prepping for STEM Persistence

Two MU professors are going all-in on preparing incoming freshmen for STEM success.

students examining test tube

Venessa Ferkel, now a Mizzou freshman, inspects a test tube while participating in MU’s Chemistry Immersion Program this summer. Stephanie Coyle (leaning over in foreground), a science teacher from North Callaway High School in Kingdom City, Missouri, and other high school students look on. Photo by Rob Hill.

This summer, 36 students, mostly graduating high school seniors, walked into Mizzou chemistry and biochemistry laboratories. It was the first time many of these soon-to-be science majors had seen a spectrometer, polymerase chain reaction machine or other technology typical of a fully equipped laboratory.

“They’re like, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this and would have had no idea what I was getting myself into,’ ” says Renee JiJi, associate professor of chemistry, who co-directs the two-week Chemistry Immersion Program (CHIP) with Peter Cornish, assistant professor of biochemistry.

The job market for science graduates is good. The U.S. is expected to add 1 million STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs between 2012 and 2022. But many freshman science majors quit science.

That’s where CHIP comes in. During the first week, JiJi and Cornish train high school science teachers on high school-level-chemistry and biochemistry concepts using college-level equipment. During the second week, the teachers train high school students using the concepts they just practiced.

CHIP is unlike traditional classes. The students don’t listen to a lecture on a concept and then prove it in the lab. Instead, teachers show students how the lab equipment works and turn them loose. “They come up with the ideas of what their observations mean,” JiJi says. “The teacher isn’t telling them what their conclusions are. They’re telling the teacher.”

The goal is to get students familiar with working in a college lab to ease their transitions into STEM majors and help them persist in their studies.

“This is giving them just a little bit of a running start so … they won’t be discouraged early on if they find something hard,” JiJi says. “They’ll say, ‘No, this is fun. I can do this; I’ve done it before.’ ”

JiJi and Cornish started CHIP in 2013 with eight students using funding from National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Awards.

It’s too soon to know whether CHIP graduates persist in STEM at a higher rate, but pre- and post-testing of participants shows that both teachers and students gain science knowledge.