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Craig Imler and Renetta Tull: Stem tide of grad-student losses

Craig Imler and Renetta Tull//Special to the Daily Record//November 29, 2012

Craig Imler and Renetta Tull: Stem tide of grad-student losses

By Craig Imler and Renetta Tull

//Special to the Daily Record

//November 29, 2012

America must compete internationally to provide more professionals with advanced degrees, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). But retaining students in these fields is challenging, as Ph.D. students are usually engaged in long and somewhat isolated academic programs.

As Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, wrote recently in Physics Today, the current reality is that STEM graduate students drop out of their programs at a higher rate than those in other fields of study.

What can universities do to create a community that provides support and mentoring to improve graduate student retention and success?

PROMISE: Maryland’s Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, has created such a community of learners, contributing to the retention of STEM graduate students at UMBC, the University of Maryland, Baltimore and the University of Maryland, College Park.

PROMISE is particularly geared toward STEM graduate students from underrepresented minorities, but the program serves graduate students from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and academic disciplines.

Attributes for professional success for STEM graduate students include persistence, a willingness to seek mentoring and effective communication skills. But PROMISE also provides community-building opportunities so students can experience a sense of connection with one another, and it uses the themes and values of “action learning” to encourage peer learning as well.

The idea is that when students feel challenged or overwhelmed, they can problem-solve together and apply their action learning skills to manage their academic and research challenges. This process intersects with the ongoing transition at many universities to more interactive and collaborative forms of teaching and learning, as discussed in a recent Harvard Magazine article, “Twilight of the Lecture.”

After reflecting on available training methods, PROMISE tried an action learning format for graduate students that was developed by Outward Bound Professional, which specializes in learning programs for corporate and organizational groups. Action learning emphasizes the personal and organizational learning that is possible when professionals take time to skillfully reflect on what strategies are most useful for individuals and project teams.

PROMISE’s introduction to action learning in the community-building phase of the program provides three outcomes. First, participants experience the engagement and connection within a group when an action learning process is successfully facilitated during a sequence of problem-solving challenges.

Second, it provides practice in how they can engage their mentors and peers by applying a reflective action learning approach to their academic challenges. Finally, the program is designed to educate them on organizational problems that they may encounter in the workplace.

According to the Council of Graduate Schools’ recent “Pathways to Careers” report, jobs require content knowledge and critical skills that include collaboration and teamwork.

These themes are highlighted in the diverse action-learning groups created in the PROMISE activities, where students face challenging projects together and then create interdisciplinary follow-up groups where they can share best practices in their approach to the academic hurdles they face.

The core of this training provides an immersion into high-performing individual and team qualities. It borrows themes from high-performing corporate and organizational teams — specifically, the notion that individuals at the start of a major project need some time to bond off-task and experience the values that the team will need to overcome challenges in the future.

PROMISE and the Outward Bound Baltimore Chesapeake Bay program implemented a progression of training activities over two days to discover the qualities of a high-performing team. The trainers used a sequence of complex problem-solving projects in the outdoors, where each group had to devise strategies for solving the challenges presented.

Valuable lessons emerged as participants reflected on the metaphorical lessons relevant to their studies that problem-solving projects provide. Through reflective dialogue, they found that options for solving problems increased, prompting them to exhibit behavior that can contribute to their academic success.

Participants generated specific qualities that helped them develop high-performing solutions. They realized that a team culture was present that allowed a diversity of ideas to be heard and allowed for continuous improvement. They found that the team was supportive and, at the same time, goal-driven to achieve a high-quality result.

By participating in these challenges, the graduate students of PROMISE observe each other in action and share their experiences. In effect, they learn how to inquire with their colleagues and mentors on how to increase their effectiveness.

Teams ranging from first-year students to post-docs, from a wide range of academic disciplines, considered similarities between the outdoor projects and their academic work.

This collective inquiry further sets the expectation that mutual, cross-discipline inquiry is advantageous and can assist students when they encounter difficulties. Teams reflected upon similarities between their community-building challenges and their academic challenges, capturing qualities that they wanted to put into practice and actions they would take to make changes.

While there is data from corporate groups on the value of this type of process, this action learning program generated similar data for graduate students as they expressed the value of active learning and reflected on the ways that they will leverage their insights into academic success.

Through the community-building retreat and continuing workshops throughout the year, PROMISE students realize that they are not alone and can share their successes and their challenges with peers. PROMISE plans to continue action learning retreats as part of its ongoing retention initiatives.

Craig Imler is director of professional programs for the Baltimore and Philadelphia Outward Bound programs. Email: [email protected]. Renetta Tull is director of PROMISE: Maryland’s Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate. E-mail: [email protected]. PROMISE website:


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