Business Matters

Mason receives NSF grant to attract more women, minorities to STEM fields

A team of researchers from George Mason University has received a National Science Foundation grant to introduce a more active-learning approach that would improve student understanding, increase retention and increase the numbers of women and minorities in STEM fields.

Jill Nelson, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering within the Volgenau School of Engineering, leads a group that recently received an NSF grant for more than $1.75 million for a collaborative research project designed to improve undergraduate STEM teaching for more than 13,000 students at Mason over the next five years. The majority of the grant will go to the hiring of additional graduate teaching assistants, who will help develop active-learning techniques that engage students.

The hope is that the multidisciplinary project, involving the departments of Biology, Mathematical Sciences and Physics and Astronomy from the College of Science and Mason Engineering’s Computer Science Department, will further inspire the STEM field’s most underrepresented groups while providing them with more tools for post-college success.

“If women and minorities are not represented in STEM, their perspectives are not reflected,” Nelson said. “STEM fields are better able to advance—and hence improve quality of life— when the STEM workforce is diverse and inclusive.”

Nelson, who is being joined by co-principal investigators Jaime Lester, Jessica RosenbergRobert Sachs and Stephanie Foster, hopes to change the culture at Mason by developing supportive STEM communities in each of the participating departments with teams of faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students all working in unison.

As part of the project, titled “Collaborative Research: Building a Culture of Active Learning through Course-based Communities of Transformation,” each of the communities will receive training on active-learning techniques, while professors from each department, who are teaching introductory classes with high numbers of students, will also receive guidance on how to develop materials and assessments that emphasize active learning and student engagement. Some examples of active learning include group problem-solving, classroom debates and peer reviews of writing.

“Active learning has been shown to improve learning for all groups, but to improve it most for women and underrepresented groups,” said Rosenberg, the acting director of Mason’s STEM Accelerator program within the College of Science and an associate professor in Mason’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. “If we can change the culture of our classrooms, we open up the possibility of increasing the retention of students in STEM fields.”

Lester, a professor and the interim director of the Higher Education Program, said the research could lead to significant results.

“We believe that Mason is ready for change, and that this grant will serve as another catalyst for change.”

The project will include analysis of interviews, surveys, course materials and other key documents to measure the transition to an active-learning approach, as well as any organizational changes at Mason.

“Research is pretty clear that these strategies help students do better,” said Sachs, a professor in Mason’s Department of Mathematical Sciences. “They’re more engaged, more interested, and they get a deeper understanding. We’re excited about that part.”

Nelson feels confident the project can succeed at Mason and become an example for others to follow.

“The goal here is to not only encourage adoption of these active-learning practices,” she said, “but, more deeply, to create a culture where it is the expectation.”