$957,000 NSF grant to boost STEM graduates at TTU

The number of “tech” graduates from Tennessee Tech University could rise significantly thanks to a $957,000 grant from the National Science Foundation that focuses on early mathematics success.

The grant funds a project to boost the early success of students taking math classes that feed them into science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. Success in early STEM-related math courses has been identified by TTU faculty as a key driver in retaining STEM students through graduation.

TTU was one of 20 universities nationwide awarded grants under the NSF’s Science Talent Expansion Program’s Division of Undergraduate Education. Some 199 universities overall applied for grants of the type TTU received.

Currently, the annual number of STEM-major graduates at TTU totals between 350-400 people. TTU wants to raise that to 550 or more in five years.

Application for the grant was a collaborative effort involving wide representation from the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Engineering and the College of Education. TTU applied four years in a row for the grant, tweaking the application each year, and finally won the funding this year.

“We competed with universities nationwide and were one of the top 20. It’s very exciting,” said Allan Mills, chairman of TTU’s math department and principal investigator for the grant application. The grant proposal’s other principal investigators were Sally J. Pardue, director of the just-opened Millard Oakley STEM Center; Donald P. Visco, interim associate dean of the College of Engineering; Holly Anthony from the Office of Curriculum and Instruction; and Stephen J. Robinson, chairman of the physics department.

The NSF grant provides $755,500 in funding for three years. The balance of the grant will be awarded for two additional years of funding contingent upon availability of funds and scientific progress of the project.

The grant project, “Math Success for STEM Majors,” will include 2,300 students in six initiatives over the course of five years. Project goals involve work to redesign introductory STEM math courses, enhanced levels of support for students, more context-driven math classes, improved communication with high school math teachers, a uniform math course placement policy, and a tracking system for student performance across the STEM disciplines.

A consultant who specializes in instructional design will be hired to help the 20 TTU faculty supported on the project as they revamp the STEM math courses and as the same team of faculty redesign a STEM 1010 introductory course at TTU. Faculty members from all three colleges will be engaged in this and many other aspects of the program.

“Learning math in isolation doesn’t work for many students,” Pardue said. “You need to tie it to the context in which you’re going to apply it.  Engineering and science majors would like to be hearing about applications from day one and practicing math from day one against real-world problems.”