Research News

Wang receives $1.4 million from NSF to examine transfer in STEM fields

September 03, 2014
by Todd Finkelmeyer

UW-Madison’s Xueli Wang was awarded $1.4 million from the National Science Foundation to examine what influences are at work when students in Wisconsin transfer from two-year colleges into STEM fields of study at four-year institutions.

Improving America’s science, technology, engineering, and math -– or STEM -– education has been one of the nation’s priorities, with President Barack Obama stressing in recent years that a globally competitive STEM workforce is essential to the nation’s economic prosperity and international competitiveness, among other key reasons.

Xueli Wang
Xueli Wang
The issue of transfer from two-year to four-year colleges in STEM fields represents both an opportunity and a challenge in broadening the participation of individuals and institutions in STEM. While the STEM transfer pathway represents a vital opportunity to prepare a diverse future STEM workforce, this opportunity is far from being fully realized. An even larger issue is the lack of a holistic theoretical framework to guide empirical research that specifically targets STEM transfer and its many complexities and nuances.

“This study will allow us to more accurately capture the complexity of two-year student pathways, experiences and other factors that play a role in STEM transfer,” says Wang, an assistant professor with the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, and a WISCAPE scholar. “It is really a culmination of my previous work in, and passion for, student transfer, particularly in STEM. I am excited to have the opportunity to engage with UW Colleges and other two-year colleges in the state which are truly committed to the success of their students.”

The grant will allow Wang’s team to implement a first-of-its-kind, four-year study that follows a cohort of 3,000 students in Wisconsin who begin in STEM programs, or who take courses required for STEM programs, at two-year colleges. The team will use a longitudinal mixed-methods approach to examining factors that both facilitate and hinder transfer into a STEM major at four-year colleges and universities.

Multiple sources of quantitative and qualitative data will be collected to capture STEM transfer as a complex and deeply contextualized process. Among the STEM transfer topics Wang and her team plan to study via survey data include: learning experiences within STEM classes and programs, including STEM momentum building; motivational attributes as related to STEM learning and upward transfer; STEM transfer capital — which refers to students’ cumulative exposure to, and knowledge of, postsecondary environmental factors that may facilitate STEM transfer; and transfer receptivity — which will look at the extent to which the four-year institutions provide the support STEM transfer students need for their continued success.

The study also will include a qualitative component, which will involve individual and group interviews in an effort to more deeply understand how distinctive factors identified by the quantitative analyses of the survey and transcript data exert their influences on STEM transfer.

Wang hopes the results from this research will inform both two- and four-year institutions about STEM learning experiences and the educational practices that matter most in charting a successful STEM transfer pathway. Ultimately, this could help increase the number of students completing STEM degrees -- especially among the many first-generation, low-income and underrepresented minority individuals who start their higher education careers at two-year colleges.

“These students at two-year colleges remain a critically untapped pool that would truly diversify the STEM workforce,” says Wang. “This study will help two- and four-year colleges in Wisconsin and beyond identify specific points of intervention needed and target programs, services, teaching approaches, among other strategies, that would help these students persist, transfer, and eventually attain a degree and career in STEM.”