Zip to industry: A first-year corporate-STEM connection program

The University of Akron (UA) received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant of $450,000 to create a cross-college retention project that will place at-risk, first-year STEM–science, technology, engineering, and mathematics–students into paid job-shadowing experiences to explore various STEM fields. The students will shadow current UA STEM students already in co-ops/internships with local and regional employers.

The NSF invests in evidence-based and evidence-gathering approaches to understanding STEM learning. The Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) program invites proposals addressing immediate challenges and opportunities facing undergraduate STEM education.

The UA project that recently received an IUSE grant is named "Zip to Industry." It provides an opportunity for research on how job shadowing impacts student retention in STEM during the first year of college. The team of researchers includes members from the College of Engineering, the Buchtel College of Arts & Sciences, the College of Applied Science and Technology, the LeBron James Family Foundation College of Education, and the Career Center.

"At UA, especially in the College of Engineering, we have a fantastic co-operative education program," commented Donald P. Visco, Jr, dean of the College of Engineering and Principal Investigator (PI) on the project. "However, we wondered if we could provide a small piece of that experience to incoming STEM students that will hopefully help cultivate and deepen their interest in this area and, in turn, lead to higher retention rates."

"Zip to Industry" will identify students with a weak connection to STEM careers upon admission to UA and provide them with job shadowing experiences during their first year. These students will be paid for this exploration experience and can choose broadly or narrowly within STEM or engineering positions.

"The first-year STEM job shadowing experience will expose incoming students to a glimpse of real-world work as well as help them gain a better understanding of what skills are needed to succeed," said Deanna Dunn, executive liaison for engineering industrial placements and development and a member of the PI team performing the research. "Having an upperclassman co-op as the shadow mentor will hopefully motivate the student to work hard the first year and promote encouragement while making the transition to college."

Job shadowing is regarded as a powerful learning experience that will impact knowledge and attitudes important for persistence toward a career goal.

The project's goal is to identify and recruit two cohorts of 50 STEM majors–totaling 100 students–and explore their perceptions and knowledge of STEM careers, as well as their motivation for STEM careers. The students will have 10 job shadowing experiences during their first year. The students will be trained in relevant professional development skills prior to leaving for their job sites and will have the ability to reflect on their experiences through focus group discussions and individual reflection.

"Employers will benefit from this grant as it will help to increase the number of STEM students who participate in internships and co-ops and will therefore allow employers an early connection to these students and potential employees," noted Laura Carey, director of career services. "Many employers have already expressed excitement about the opportunity to participate in this new program."

If successful, it is likely the project would be replicated at other colleges and universities, which would help increase the retention of students within STEM fields.

The College of Engineering at UA, which has the fifth oldest co-operative education program in the US, placed more than 1,000 students in co-operative education/internship programs this past year. With this extensive employer network, the mechanism exists at UA to examine the impact of a job shadowing program on first-year STEM students and improve retention in STEM fields.

Other members of the PI team include Linda Subich and David Steer, both associate deans in the Buchtel College of Arts & Sciences; Elizabeth Kennedy, dean of the College of Applied Science and Technology; and Nidaa Makki, associate professor in the LeBron James Family Foundation College of Education.


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