STEM Gateway Program Hits the Ground Running with New PLFs

April 24, 2012 - Dorene DiNaro

STEM Gateway Program Hits the Ground Running

Alicia LovatoJacob KetchamCarolina Ortega and Alyssa JohnsonThe UNM STEM Gateway program, a project for inclusive undergraduate success in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fields is officially up and running and providing opportunities for STEM students success.

“STEM Gateway helps us collaborate with the students on the best way to address their needs in these fields through course reform, STEM Student Interest Groups, Peer Learning Facilitators and data-driven prioritization,” says STEM Gateway Director, Tim Schroeder.

One of the best resources this semester has been the addition of 27 Peer Learning Facilitators (PLFs) who are responsible for providing peer-assisted collaborative learning activities in large gateway sections allowing instructors to incorporate a wider variety of teaching strategies. “This is a great resource for students in the STEM fields that may have been struggling with some of their classes,” Schroeder says.

The strategy has proven to be a win-win situation for the PLFs and the students. Carolina Ortega (pictured top right with Alyssa Johnson), a Psychology and Spanish major serves as a PLF in a Math 121 class in which Alyssa Johnson is a student. “The class begins with a lecture from our instructor and then we break into six smaller groups and are assigned a problem to work on. If we don’t understand a problem, the PLFs are there in the classroom to help us,” Johnson says. “This is an effective way of teaching, thanks in large part to PLFs like Carolina.”

Part of Ortega’s job is to help facilitate group work and assist students to better understand the material—a process that Ortega says benefits her as much as the students. “Being a PLF has helped me determine what I want to do for my graduate program,” she says. “Helping them reinforces my own skills.”

Jacob Ketcham (pictured top middle), who is a UNM senior double majoring in Foreign Language and Literature and Professional Writing also serves as a PLF in a Math 120 classroom, echoes Ortega’s comments about the benefits—although he never envisioned he would someday be teaching. “I never understood why people wanted to be teachers,” he says, but recalls one teacher who made a lasting impression on him. “One of my trigonomotry teachers at CNM made everything easy and I wanted to pass on the knowledge that he gave me to other people.”

Now as a PLF, Ketcham feels the rewards. “This is a great program where I get to see students who may have been struggling before, just start ‘getting it,’” he says. Ketcham who holds office hours during the week, says that he’s always booked with students coming to see him for help and it’s been that way the entire semester—some of the students repeatedly coming to see him. “All that’s needed is a little more empathy and patience on the part of the instructors and a willingness to work with people to help them succeed,” he says.

Johnson agrees and says that if it weren't"t’t for Ortega’s openness to make appointments and willingness to help her, she wouldn't"t’t be passing the class. “I have gotten A’s on my first two exams,” she says. “The PLFs push us to take the initiative by asking for help and not only helping us through the problem but by giving us the tools we need to be able to figure it out on our own.”

Alicia Lovato (pictured top left), a junior majoring in Pharmacy,who has served as PLF for the last four semesters (the first two under the prior UNM TITLE V grant) says that she appreciates the impact the Gateway program is having on students in the STEM fields. Since the program is geared toward low-income, Hispanic students, she sees the impact it has on students from smaller communities in New Mexico. “Many of the students in the program are the first ones in their families to go to college and they are intimidated because as Hispanics, they are the minority in their STEM classes,” she says. “Sometimes they feel alone and just need someone to believe in them and support them.”

Lovato sees her role in the program as more than just someone to help them with their math skills, but as someone they can come to with any questions they many have about the University. “I really like to get to know my students and let them know I am here for them if they have questions about financial aid, advisement, careers, etc. I like to let them know where I came from and why I chose the field I did.”

Although all of the PLFs now have one thing in common for sure—they like their jobs and love helping the students, they also all have similar stories about why they wanted to become PLFs as well. For Ortega and Ketcham the desire to help students came from helping their own siblings in math and seeing the results. For Lovato, a high school teacher really helped her to learn to love math, which lead to a love of science which lead to where she wants to go now—Pharmacy.

“Although I had two very supportive parents while I was growing up, not all students have that,” Lovato says. “Most of these kids just need someone to believe in them and to tell them they can do it. If I can do it, they can do it.”

In addition to the support the students received from the Peer Learning Facilitators, the STEM Gateway will be starting Student Interest Groups for the first time this fall. The Interest Groups are one-credit shadow seminar courses that connect core STEM courses to other STEM majors, will be offered for the first time in the fall. “These courses introduce students to the connections between STEM disciplines, while encouraging them to explore their own career and professional interests,” Schroeder says.

STEM Gateway is funded through a $3.82 million U.S. Department of Education TITLE V grant until the year 2016 and focuses its resources on undergraduate science and math courses that serve as gateways to STEM degrees—those which traditionally have had low success rates. The program which seeks to increase the number of Hispanic and other low-income students attaining STEM degrees, serves as a model for collaboration, course reform, and student success in the STEM fields.

For more information on the STEM Gateway Program, please contact Tim Schroeder at 277-1723.