Theory Meets Practice: HBCU Initiatives That Promote Academic Success Among African Americans in STEM
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Theory Meets Practice:
HBCU Initiatives That Promote Academic Success Among African Americans in STEM

In the current postindustrial era, increasing the number of minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is critically important for the United States’ economic growth and its position in the global marketplace (Guess, 2008; Moore, 2006; Öztürk, 2007). Given the U.S. Census Bureau’s (2008) projection that the population of minorities is expected to increase by 2050, comprising 50% of the U.S. population, while White percentages are projected to decline, it is critical that research document programmatic initiatives that promote and support the success of underrepresented racial/ ethnic minorities in STEM. To this end, we interviewed STEM program coordinators at an historically Black college and university (HBCU) in a mid-Atlantic state to gain insight about the uniqueness of their STEM initiatives and the impact they are having on student success in STEM fields. What makes these STEM initiatives unique is that they are undergirded by student affairs retention theories. In this article, we will present four STEM initiatives and provide context about the retention theories. We will also discuss what college administrators, specifically STEM coordinators, might learn and be able to implement from the initiatives discussed in this article.

Description of STEM Initiatives

Although this HBCU has been chronically underfunded compared to its White counterparts, historically this university has a reputation for producing the most Black graduates in STEM fields in its state. The university has implemented a wide array of initiatives designed to support Black students pursuing STEM. One initiative that the university implemented to support Blacks in STEM is the Pre-Accelerated Curriculum in Engineering (PACE) Program. PACE is a 6-week intensive precollege summer program, for admitted freshmen, who have yet to take college-level courses in the engineering program. The primary purpose of PACE is to help students strengthen their skills in math and critical thinking so they can test out of developmental mathematics when they take the university’s placement exam. This program exposes engineering students to critical thinking skills, advanced mathematics courses, English courses, mandatory tutorial support, and research/training. PACE introduces students to the engineering curriculum and facilitates engagement with engineering undergraduate students and faculty. The engineering program also provides students with peer tutoring/mentoring [End Page 440] support. To this end, upper-class students assist faculty in providing freshmen and sophomores with the academic support to help them develop the self-efficacy and academic skills required to successfully complete the engineering courses. Research has shown that programs structured in this way help to enhance students’ collegiate academic preparedness (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). According to STEM coordinators at the university, students participating in PACE have an 80% probability of testing into calculus, a gatekeeper course, at the end of the program instead of enrolling in developmental mathematics. Thus, participation in the PACE program significantly increases students’ rate of persistence to graduation.

The Foundations of Mathematics (FOM) is a second STEM initiative that is similar to PACE in terms of helping students enhance their academic preparedness in STEM, specifically engineering. With FOM, students admitted to the university, but who have yet to take college courses, have the option of participating in an online course that assists them in enhancing their knowledge and skills in mathematical concepts. The central goal of this initiative is to help new students pass the university’s placement examination with the highest score possible, thereby eliminating the need to take developmental mathematics. Removing this step can be critical as research has shown that the consequence of participating in developmental mathematics has the propensity to delay a students’ time of graduation (Deil-Amen & Rosenbaum, 2002).

The tenets of FOM are not unique to engineering STEM majors. In fact, faculty and staff in the sciences have implemented a third STEM initiative that is analogous to the FOM. Specifically, they introduced WebWork—an online-based teaching and assessment system for difficult mathematics courses, such as precalculus, calculus, and differential equations. Faculty and staff implemented this after conducting a survey, which revealed that students were failing mathematics courses because they lacked a way to...