CLARKSBURG — Education officials and students are working together to break down barriers that are preventing first-generation and under-represented college students in West Virginia from entering and graduating from science, technology, engineering and math fields.

With an emphasis on rural, first-generation college students through their first two years of college, First2 Network is a West Virginia alliance comprised of undergraduate students, college faculty, teachers and educators, state policymakers, industry representatives and more who have joined forces to improve the success of STEM students.

While West Virginia high school students are rather interested in STEM careers, only about 30% of those who declare a STEM major in college end up graduating with a STEM degree, said Joanna Burt-Kinderman, student agency lead for First2 Network and a math instructional coach for Pocahontas County Schools.

“This is an economic problem for our nation and for West Virginia, and our aim is to double that success rate,” Burt-Kinderman said. “Letting our first-generation West Virginia students know that they are the greatest asset is important. This is a game-changer for the next generation.”

In September 2018, First2 received a National Science Foundation INCLUDES award of $7.15 million for the next five years, she said.

First2 Network is one of only five National Science Foundation INCLUDES alliances funded nationwide.

The funding, coordinated through the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, allows First2 to develop a statewide network of innovative stakeholders who will collaborate to solve the STEM persistence problem, Burt-Kinderman said.

“We have established working groups devoted to increasing the number of early research experiences for our STEM majors, improving these opportunities and documenting what we learn to better serve others,” she said. “Others are working to enrich the engagement between STEM faculty and their students. They are working toward how to ensure our students are ready to be successful STEM majors when they get to college.

“At the core of all of this is our students themselves, and they should be co-creators of the solutions. We really believe that institutions don’t fully understand student perspective as much as they should. So we have student leaders that are involved in the process themselves.”

According to Burt-Kinderman, first-generation students involved with First2 across the state are speaking with college campus officials about barriers that can be addressed at that level, returning to their hometown high schools to speak with students and teachers and making connections with fellow first-generation students on their college campuses.

Biochemistry major Hannah Petronek is a junior at West Virginia University and a first-generation student hoping to make a difference for those who come after her.

Petronek said that when thinking about what barriers she encountered most as a first-generation student, math preparation and financial aid were two of the biggest that impacted her decisions about a program of study.

“I was really wary of engineering programs and more math-heavy sciences,” she said. “Even though I am biochemistry, if I was solely chemistry, there would be a lot more math and physics classes involved. I stuck with more biology because of the math preparation I came to college with. In an engineering program, I would have easily tacked on another year to my degree, so it kept me away from those fields.”

To prevent such occurrences for other students, Petronek said it’s important that the state recruit and retain more quality math teachers and pay close attention to what is happening in math classes. She said her calculus course work in high school was completely different from what she learned in college.

Additionally, Petronek said finding the money to go to college is a big barrier for first-generation students.

“Being a first-generation student doesn’t mean that you’re coming from a low-income family, but it often does,” she said. “Finding scholarships and outside funds to keep us in college was difficult. I remember of all of the scholarships my high school offered, only one of them was for first-generation students, and it was a national scholarship for which only two-three students were chosen. I had national competition.”

Tyler Davis graduated from Fairmont State University in 2017 with a math degree and was one of the first students involved in the First2 Network pilot project. He serves as an adviser to the project and the students involved in it.

Navigating college in general was something that Davis said he struggled with.

“Whether that’s scheduling courses, knowing which classes were necessary to complete my major or just general navigation were things that no one really told me about or was advertised to me, since I was the first in my family to go to college,” he said. “Its a hard conversation to have with people sometimes because you don’t want them to look at you funny. I had to take it upon myself to figure those things out, but I found out later that there were other students feeling the same and going through the same things as me.”

Davis said he wants to paint a pathway for other students and be there as a voice to them, he said.

“There are a lot of students interested in STEM majors, but when they get into it and find that it’s really challenging while they are already having a hard time navigating college in general, they tend to switch their major,” he said. “Being a resource for students, going to speak with them, answer their questions and helping them to have an easier time than I did is why I am involved.”

In the Harrison County school system, Secondary Curriculum Coordinator Grant Spencer said that by getting involved in middle school STEM courses, students learn about the variety of current careers and future careers that are STEM-based.

They discover that careers which require STEM skills are accompanied by healthy salaries and that there are a great deal of STEM jobs available in NCWV, Spencer said.

“Although some of the STEM careers require a four-year college degree, there are many STEM jobs that only require a certificate or a two-year community college degree,” he said. “Our middle and high schools will need to properly advise each individual student to give them a clear picture of how to get from where they are to where they want to be — whether that be higher-level science, technology, engineering and math classes, early admission to college via dual-credit classes, one of our career and technical education programs or enrollment in United Technical Center.”

According to Spencer, research shows that early exposure to STEM applications helps students understand the world around them, igniting a curiosity about figuring out how things work.

While video games and social media tend to be students’ favorite pastime, it is important they understand that someone has to code the software to make it all work, he said.

“They will grow up in a world that requires at least a moderate knowledge of STEM concepts in order to function in society,” he said. “It is our duty as public educators to provide a rigorous and relevant curriculum for our students to stay up with the latest science, technology, engineering and math concepts. The middle school STEM curriculum will develop a full range of academic, technical, cognitive, technological and personal skills within our students.”

Spencer said there are a number of barriers that students face on a daily basis, but it is imperative that school systems provide equal STEM access to all students because their STEM capability cannot be directly linked to their race, sex, gender, parent’s income or parent’s marital status.

“If there is no internet access or current devices available in the home, the school system must pick up the slack when educating students on the latest technology while they are at school,” Spencer said. “Any student that is interested in a STEM field will have ample opportunity to develop that interest in Harrison County Schools and receive a pathway to their dream job.”

Christy Day, coordinator of communications for the West Virginia Department of Education, said that in a recent meeting with the First2 Network, students shared stories of their experience getting into a STEM program at the college of their choosing.

”We discussed things that the students felt they needed more assistance with or information about while in high school, and how they felt they struggled in their first year of higher education,” she said. “We take that information and will share it with our county chief instructional leaders, teachers and counselors to ensure all the needs of our students are met as they prepare for post-secondary plans.”

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