Photo by Erik Andersen

CHAPEL HILL – Extra focus on undergraduate education in science will be the result of a $500,000 grant recently received by UNC.

The initiative, undertaken by the Association of American Universities, will be spread over the next five years and aims to have more students stick with science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, majors.

Senior associate dean of natural sciences at UNC, Michael Crimmins, says a large number of students who join intending to be STEM majors end up changing their field of study.

“About 50 percent of students that enter the university intend to be STEM majors. And only about high 30s end up graduating as STEM majors, so we’re losing a significant portion of students,” Crimmins says. “And the evidence indicates that we’re losing them in the first introductory courses where they aren’t performing very well.”

The changes UNC is making to its STEM courses involves “flipping” the classroom–a method that moves away from lecturing and encourages students to lean the information on their own through textbooks and other materials. Then they apply what they learned in class.

The flipped classroom approach has been used in UNC STEM classes before and Crimmins says, especially in an introductory biology class taught by senior lecturer Kelly Hogan, that approach was highly successful.

“She saw an even more significant improvement of underrepresented minorities,” Crimmins says. “African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans performed much better than they had in the traditional lecture course.”

Crimmins says the flipped classroom approach has also been applied to some physics courses, where the results were positive as well.

Carolina will receive the $500,000 grant, as part of a donation by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust to the AAU, over the next three years. The university is also committing more than $1.2 million of its own funds to this initiative.