WSU Vancouver is part of groundbreaking national effort to improve STEM transfer experience

Although transfer students make up more than 55% of all WSU Vancouver undergraduates, the number of transfer students pursuing STEM degrees is much lower (~35% of the campus enrollment). They face too many obstacles, including lack of prerequisites taken in community college and the need to spend any spare time on coursework instead of in research labs. “It’s especially difficult for students transferring in with an A.A. degree and on financial aid, since they end up having to squeeze all of their STEM courses into two years and it can be very overwhelming,” said Gretchen Rollwagen-Bollens, associate professor in the School of the Environment at WSU Vancouver.

Hoping for resources to address the problem, WSU Vancouver responded to a call for proposals to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Inclusive Excellence 3 (IE3) program in fall 2019.  Finalists were to be notified in spring 2020, but then came the pandemic, and HHMI temporarily shut the program down. HHMI had planned to follow the standard funding process, asking a select few institutions for full proposals, then awarding individual grants to a smaller number. But as the pandemic continued, the funder decided to do IE3 differently.

Of the 354 pre-proposals received, HHMI selected 108 schools that seemed inclined to work with others on collaborative solutions. It invited those 108 to form collaborative learning communities, and 104—including WSU Vancouver—accepted. 

HHMI “broke one of the cardinal rules in competitive grantmaking by choosing the winners before they had even submitted detailed proposals—and then allowing the winners to come up with a plan on how to spend the money,” Science Magazine wrote.

Each school chose one of three challenges to address, and likeminded schools were grouped together:

  1. How can we make the content of the introductory science experience more inclusive?
  2. How can we evaluate effective inclusive teaching, and then use the evaluation in the rewards system, including faculty promotion and tenure?
  3. How can we create genuine partnerships between 2- and 4-year colleges and universities so that transfer students have a more inclusive experience?

WSU Vancouver is one of 15 universities from across the U.S. in the third group, each of which partners with a select number of community colleges. For WSU Vancouver, that is Clark College and Lower Columbia College. The three institutions had already begun addressing STEM transfer issues, and the HHMI grant brings resources and collaborative thinking on a national scale.

The 15 universities established the IMPACT STEM Transfer Network. They are sharing $8.8 million over six years—a big investment with no assurances of how it will be spent. Rollwagen-Bollens, as principal investigator, oversees WSU Vancouver’s portion of the grant—approximately $824,000—and is currently one of three “operational leaders” of the national network.

For more than a year, the 15 universities have met over Zoom to develop shared goals about how to reduce or remove obstacles for transfer students who want to obtain a 4-year degree in a STEM field.

For their part, WSU Vancouver, Clark and LCC (they call their collaboration the Southwest Washington Regional Alliance for Inclusive Science Education, or RAISE) have identified four key issues: transfer advising at community colleges (to help students navigate their science prerequisites early), peer mentoring (pairing each new transfer student with one who has successfully transferred), paid opportunities for undergraduate research (so students don’t have to give up a job to get needed lab experience), and addressing the math curriculum (which is often the downfall for transfer students in STEM).

At the network level, “we are positioning ourselves to really make substantive changes and do it in a data-informed and evidence-based way, so it will work anywhere,” Rollwagen-Bollens said.

“We have to be able to welcome and accept students who are qualified to be here and are coming from all places,” she added. “If we think broadly about these specific issues in our system, we will almost automatically increase diversity, build equity and make the campus more welcoming to students in science. We’re just getting started.”