Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Changing the Culture of STEM: The Quantitative Skills Center at Pomona College

In 2009–10, a group of Pomona College faculty members discovered they had a STEM problem. Looking at the college’s data, they saw that some students—especially black and Hispanic students—were not pursuing degrees in the sciences at the same rates as their white or Asian peers.

“We had some really clear data showing how students were leaving the sciences,” said Travis Brown, director of Pomona’s Quantitative Skills Center.

To help recruit and retain students in STEM fields, the faculty developed a plan for a learning center to help students get the skills needed to succeed in introductory “gateway” courses into STEM majors.

Opened in 2013, the Quantitative Skills Center (QSC) has grown beyond these initial aspirations to become a robust learning and tutoring center, a twenty-four-hour study spot, and a cohort-based learning community.

“The QSC isn’t just math and science tutoring,” Brown said. “We changed the culture of STEM at Pomona.”

Getting Help is “Just What You Do” at Pomona

According to Brown, who was hired in 2013 as the QSC’s full-time director, the college’s writing center was a huge influence on the QSC.

“The writing center has a long history of working with students on their written communication skills, and the deep institutional memory has helped create a campus culture in which getting help with writing is, according to students, ‘just what you do,’” Brown wrote in a 2014 Peer Review article. The new center, he hoped, would do the same thing for math and science.

Tutors (called “partners” at the center) support students in any courses with a quantitative component, including biology, chemistry, computer science, economics, math, and physics. QSC partners are usually sophomores, juniors, or seniors who were successful in the course and were recommended by a faculty member.

“We are responsive to students in real time, on demand, as they need it,” Brown said. “If a student comes in and we don’t have the tutor, we’ll hire as soon as we can.”

When hiring a partner, QSC staff don’t just look for content mastery. Often, they hire partners who had previously used the center themselves to succeed in their courses.

QSC staff train their diverse corps of partners to use affirming and validating language and body language, and to avoid phrases like “everybody knows” or “this is easy” that may alienate students.

“You are not really expected to be an expert in the subject, you’re just expected to help,” said Ja'Nea James, who tutors in the QSC. “If it gets to a subject that I’m not the most familiar with, we’re learning it together.”

Sometimes, several students will come for help with the same class at the same time, and partners collaborate with them as a group.

“I really value collaborative learning and how helpful it is with understanding things,” James said. “I try to see if they can explain it to themselves before I jump in and explain the topic.”

Students can drop in for help during certain hours and can also book appointments up to two weeks in advance. The center’s space is open twenty-four hours a day for any students to use, even if they are not meeting with a QSC partner.

“Students will come here for their one-on-one tutoring, but we’re also just a popular space on campus for folks who want to come and hang out, who want to study,” said Dylan James Worcester, assistant director of the QSC.

To make students feel welcome in the center, staff members spend a lot of time speaking at new-student orientation and visiting classes, or just talking to students passing in the halls.

“You have to be visible. You have to be out there,” Brown said. “If you’re going to be in your office all the time, you’re not going to have that connection with students.”

Through these efforts and word of mouth around campus, the QSC has normalized a campus culture of getting help with math and science.

“They know this is their space,” Brown said. “If you need to get tutoring, then you just go, because that’s what you do at Pomona.”

Cohorts

Since 2004, Pomona has participated in programs with the Posse Foundation. Based in urban centers across the country, Posse recruits cohorts of ten promising high school students—Posses—and connects them to colleges across the country, where they are provided full-tuition scholarships and continuous mentorship and advising. Each year, Pomona enrolls Posses from Miami and Chicago.

The QSC used the Posse model as inspiration for new cohorts focused on science (established in 2013), math (2015), and economics (2017).

“It’s high touch,” Brown said of the model. “It’s regular meetings. It’s building community. It’s having a cohort of peers that help you get to the finish line.”

Each summer, the admissions office gives the QSC a list of incoming students (both first-year and transfer students) who expressed an interest in STEM or medicine and who identify as first-generation students, low-income students, or students of color, and the QSC invites them to participate.

With about 1,600 students on campus and about 253 cohort students, the QSC is working to increase capacity for first-generation or underrepresented students who want to participate. The QSC doubled the Pomona Scholars of Science cohort in 2018, and they also allow students who did not participate in recruitment over the summer to join during the year if space permits.

The cohorts, each comprising ten to fifteen students, meet weekly the first year, meet biweekly the second year, and set their own schedules in their final years. Because students have packed schedules, they meet during lunch or over dinner, with meals covered by the QSC.

“If you come from a first-generation, low-income background and you grew up predominantly around people of color, coming to Pomona can be a real culture shock,” said James, who joined a cohort in her first year and now acts as a mentor for new cohorts. “I feel like with that open and welcoming space, it gives us more room to grow as people and as Pomona College students.”

Each first-year cohort has a faculty mentor and two peer mentors (usually sophomores from the previous year’s cohorts). Faculty members from STEM disciplines and staff often attend meetings to give students tips and to discuss their experiences in their field. Faculty may come from surprising backgrounds, often starting out in fields unrelated to STEM.

“It is very helpful for people, especially first years, to see you don’t have to have such a linear path to get to where you are,” James said.

To help build community, peer mentors from different cohorts work together to host events, like holiday parties, skate nights, or movie nights, where students can “relax and just hang out with other cohort members,” James said.

In one cohort, Pomona Scholars of Science (PSS), students also take dedicated sections of biology and chemistry, which incorporate more of the high-impact educational practices that have been shown to improve engagement and retention among historically underserved groups of students.

“Cohort classes make students more comfortable with their learning environment and prepare them to navigate a professional field where they might be a minority,” James said.

Because of the success of the cohort courses, these inclusive pedagogies are influencing other sections of the course and other departments on campus.

“There’s a different feel in the room,” Brown said. “There’s a different emphasis on team learning and doing projects.”

The cohorts are low-pressure and not contingent on students remaining in STEM. Students who leave for other disciplines usually stay in the cohort.

If a student tells QSC staff that they don’t want to do STEM anymore, “We say, ‘That’s great. We still want you involved because these are your friends and we like you and we want you there,’” Brown said.

Beyond meetings, mentorship, and courses, the cohorts also connect students with summer research experiences, often with funding. After looking at data, QSC staff saw that “first-generation, low-income, Black, or Latino students were just not participating in research to the same degree as other students. If they were participating, they were waiting longer to get in there,” Brown said.

The research takes place on campus, with partners at other institutions, or with community organizations, and it gives students confidence that helps to retain them in STEM fields and prepare them for careers or graduate schools.

In their sophomore year and beyond, many cohort students become partners in the QSC and often hold the highest offices of student government.

“We really prepare students to be leaders on campus, in graduate school, or in their professions,” Worcester said.

Equity-Minded Data Disaggregation

Pomona continues to grow its commitment to being “equity-minded.”

“A lot of folks on campus talk about what is equity and how do we be equity-minded,” Brown said. “Really, that’s about disaggregating data to reveal those gaps in performance and to see where the institution needs to take responsibility.”

Pomona’s new data show that student outcomes are improving in STEM.

“The number of students that are leaving the STEM disciplines because they fail, they feel like they can’t do it, that they don’t have support—that number has decreased dramatically,” Brown said. Of students who participate in cohorts, 76 percent have declared a major in STEM and stuck with it. And the overall number of black and Latino students taking and completing introductory STEM courses has doubled since 2013.

Student grades in introductory STEM “gateway” courses—another “important predictor of persistence in the field,” Worcester says—are up as well. Since 2013, when both the QSC and academic cohorts were established, the percentage of minoritized students who received a grade of B- or better in several introductory STEM courses, including biology and chemistry, has increased significantly.

Though there could be many reasons that students are performing better, there are indications that the QSC and cohorts are having an impact. Cohort students had the highest retention rates among any other group of students between first-year chemistry and second-year organic chemistry.  

“The cohort program has been the real game-changer for how students of color, first-generation students, low-income students have done,” Brown said. And it all starts with students feeling more and more confident in courses and research. “It’s just story after story of that switch, that change, from that scared first-year student to these juniors and seniors who are just so capable, so confident.”